Hear them roar: Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association take final rides with unaccompanied vets

Julia LeDoux
January 10, 2020 - 10:17 am
Final Salute

Department of Veterans Affairs

The chance meeting of a Tampa VA Medical Center employee and a funeral director led to more than a friendship between the two. It sparked a program that honors deceased veterans who have no one else to accompany them to their final resting place.

Final Salute: The Last Mile provides a motorcycle escort to the Florida National Cemetery for veterans who die at the Tampa and Bay Pines VA Medical Centers without family to claim their remains, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

David Allen, a Tampa VA biomedical information systems specialist and member of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, was looking for a little fresh air when he recently stepped out onto the hospital loading dock. He spotted a hearse with a flag-draped coffin clearly visible inside.

“I was thinking this has got to be somebody important, so instead of going where I was going to go, I climbed down and went to talk to who I thought was the driver,” he said.

That person turned out to be the owner of Veterans Funeral Care.

 “We got to talking and he said, `no, this is an unclaimed vet,' and that struck a chord with me,” Allen said. 

The Final Journey

When that happens, the hospital contracts Veterans Funeral Care to transport the remains to Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Florida, more than 45 miles away, for direct internment with no military honors. Those honors normally have to be requested by the family.

Allen, an Army Desert Shield/Desert Storm Veteran, has ridden with the CVMA for several years. He felt the group could do something to honor these unaccompanied veterans. So he spoke with the association’s executive board and funeral home officials.

“We were fortunate enough to be able to sit down with both directors, and they absolutely loved the idea,” Allen said. “It was, why didn’t we know this was happening?  It really boils down to nobody knew.” 

Final Salute
Department of Veterans Affairs

Official policies are now in place at both Tampa and Bay Pines VA recognizing Final Salute: The Last Mile as an official partnership between the hospitals and the CVMA. The first escort at Tampa took place in February 2019, and there have been eight more escort missions at Tampa and four at Bay Pines since then.

Now, whenever a veteran dies at the hospital with no family to claim the remains, either Allen or the veteran experience officer is notified. Allen coordinates with his fellow CVMA members, decedent affairs and the funeral home, which requests military honors for each veteran as well.

Bigger rollout?

The program has been such a success that Allen recently received a challenge coin from Dr. Richard A. Stone, VHA’s executive in charge, thanking him for creating the program.

While both Tampa and Bay Pines VA signed on for The Final Salute: The Last Mile, Allen is now working with the Miami VA Medical Center to implement a similar program. There has been talk of possibly rolling it out nationally as well.

“I would love to hear that there would never be a veteran who passed away at a VA where they did not get an escort, that didn’t have somebody to go and take them and be with them in that final moment,” Allen said. “Even if there’s not a CVMA, there’s a VFW Riders or American Legion Riders.”

The mission doesn’t end at the cemetery for the CVMA, either. The organization adds the name of each escorted veteran to their rolls and toasts them at each membership meeting.

 “There’s a sense of pride from saying, Hey, we stepped up and claimed this guy, we claimed him as a brother,” Allen said. “We did the right thing so that he didn’t go alone.”

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Reach Julia LeDoux: Julia@connectingvets.com

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