Hundreds attend burial service of veteran without a family
By BEAU BROCKETT JR. | Niles Daily Star | Published: July 18, 2019
NILES, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Hundreds of people Wednesday at Niles’ Silverbrook Cemetery to honor a veteran without a family.
Wayne “Sarge” Wilson, Army veteran of the Vietnam War, disabled veteran’s advocate, retired truck driver and renowned jokester, died on May 28 in Ann Arbor at the age of 67.
Without immediate family, Wilson planned for military honors and a burial service with Brown Funeral Home and Cremation Services, said staff member Drew Mikel.
Mikel sent out a press release, expecting a dozen or so people to attend the service. So did Wilson’s friend, Charlotte Andrews of Niles.
Instead, hundreds more showed up after the burial service announcement went viral, drawing thousands of shares on social media.
The crowd contained veterans, their families, area residents and a few officials, such as State Rep. Brad Paquette and a representative from U.S. Sen. Gary Peters’ office.
“He wasn’t expecting this,” Andrews said about Wilson. “None of us were expecting this.”
Andrews, who received a U.S. flag and the shells of American Legion Post 51’s 21-gun salute, said Wilson would be in tears seeing all those who turned out.
“I could see him saying, ‘Baby girl, what in the world did you guys do?’ ” she said with a chuckle.
Wilson was born Dec. 11, 1951, in Michigan City, Indiana. He served in the Vietnam War from 1971 to 1977 as a member of the army in the 2nd Infantry Division.
Wilson kept to his military roots later in life, said Mike Smith in his eulogy. Wilson was often among the first attendees of Niles’ Memorial Day service, making sure all graves of veterans had accompanying flags.
The Vietnam veteran became good friends with those that lived with him in his Niles apartment complex later in life, Smith said. Before heading to the grocery store, he would often ask his friends if they needed anything.
Wilson would take the Niles Dial-a-Ride Transportation service to get groceries, which is how he befriended fellow 2nd Infantry Division veteran and bus driver Charles Leath.
“We hit it right off,” Leath said. “We’d talk all the time, and he was one of the nicest people I ever met.”
Leath shuttled people on his DART bus to the burial service, while Brown Funeral Home paid all expenses for its riders.
Wilson’s burial service began with a procession of his casket. Behind it were dozens of motorcycle riders on their bikes and a few military vehicles.
After the procession stopped, Niles Mayor Nick Shelton started off the first of four speeches.
“Your presence today is a testament to our community,” he said to the audience. “It is a testament to the city of Niles. It is a testament to our country. Most of all, it is a testament to Wayne Wilson.”
Shelton said that Wilson’s story ended but would continue on with those in attendance. “His legacy will be an example for all veterans, especially those men and women who feel alone or feel like there is no one left in their corner,” he said. “You are not alone. We are here for you.”
In his eulogy, Smith reiterated the loneliness some veterans feel and the importance of treating veterans better.
“One of the thousands of reasons why I love my country and this community is because when you heard about this, you refuse to let a warrior to be buried alone,” he said. “You all realized that Sarge deserves better. Every veteran deserves better.”
Brothers Roger and Tim Parce, who both served, said they appreciated the event because it showed that veterans were still in the minds of many Americans. They both thought that veterans and the wars they fought in were not talked about enough.
“We lost a lot of people, so that’s one of the reasons why veterans stick together,” Roger said.
“What’s a couple of hours on our time?” added his brother.
The Parces stood next to Linh Tran, of South Bend. He was born in Vietnam and fled around the time of the Vietnam War, becoming a refugee in South Asia before coming to the U.S.
“Because he is a Vietnam vet, I feel the least I can do is show my respect to the men who came to a very little-known country that they don’t even know anything about to fight for freedom and liberty and justice,” he said.
Sisters Sharon Wiles and Connie Kelly also attended to show their support and respect.
Wiles said she and her Vietnam veteran husband, Will, almost went to a similar burial service in Tennessee a few months ago but were unable to make it. She was happy to learn that one service was closer and that so many people showed up to it.
“I expected a lot of people,” said Wiles.
The service also drew in younger attendees, too. Ethan, a fifth-grade student, attended with his mother, Shannon Frame, and his sixth-grade brother, Tyler.
“I’m just really happy to see everyone come out this day,” Ethan said.