Lakewood Ranch Herald

Patriot Guard Riders stand in for veterans who die alone in Manatee-Sarasota and Tampa Bay

SARASOTA -- Aside from their names, ranks, and the fact that they served honorably in the U.S. armed forces, not much was known about the two Navy veterans who were laid to rest Tuesday morning under gray, blustery skies at Sarasota National Cemetery.

None of those who came to pay their respects at the dual funeral knew anything about Alva Frederick Bonds Jr., who served as a jet engine mechanic from 1960 to 1964 and died in April at 71.

Or Andrew J. Thompson, who served as a seaman during the Korean War and died at age 87 in April.

That no one present knew about their joys, their sorrows, their successes or failures, or where they came from did not matter.

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders came to stand in for the missing friends and families, and to ensure that the veterans had a proper farewell.

Through the Heroes Without Family program, local veterans have been

standing in for the families of fallen comrades, many of them indigent, ever since Sarasota National Cemetery opened in 2009.

Jim "Vinnie" Dryer of Bradenton served as ride captain for the Tuesday's funerals for the two Navy vets from Largo.

He attends about 70 such funerals a year.

"They have family here," Dryer said of members of the Patriot Guard Riders. "They will never be forgotten. It does my heart good to see this kind of turnout."

Tuesday, the two vets received full military honors, a motorcycle escort, the playing of Taps, and final words by Tidewell Hospice chaplain Todd Morgan.

Leonard "Taz" Leonard of Port Charlotte was adamant about the importance of showing proper respect.

"As long as I live and breathe, no veteran will ever be forgotten," Leary said. "Or treated the way Vietnam vets were treated when they came home."

Morgan counted it an honor to stand for those who no longer can and to say a few final words at Tuesday's funeral.

"We pray for Alva and Andrew. We give thanks for their service to the country and for their time to stand and put on the uniform when they were called on," Morgan said.

The Heroes Without Families program "pays tribute, honor and respect to those who deserve it. There is no else to stand for them so we do," said Jessica E. McVay, commandant of Marine Corps League DeSoto Detachment 588 in Bradenton.

Also taking part in the salute to each of the veterans who pass on without families is Knights of Columbus Assembly 3089 of Our Lady of Charity Catholic Church in Sarasota.

Since Sarasota National Cemetery opened off Clark Road, east of Interstate 75, it has seen nearly 4,900 funeral services and has become destination for patriotic observances.

A Memorial Day observance is planned 1:30 p.m. May 27 and family members of Spc. 4 Patrick Lay of Bradenton and Lance Cpl. Nathaniel L. Schultz of Riverview are expected to take part. Both men were killed in Afghanistan and interred at the cemetery.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1