There were tears, songs, and salutes for Army veteran Peter Turnpu, 77, who died alone at his South Jersey home but was honored Friday by more than 1,000 people — strangers who came to pay their respects.
In death, Turnpu drew veterans of all ages and the public to a poignant service steeped in military tradition, to say farewell to a man who had no known family. For veterans, he was family, bonded by their service to their country.
”This is my brother,” said retired Army Sgt. Jose Burgos, 52, of Flemington, N.J., who was wounded in combat in Iraq. “It’s a brotherhood.”
On a chilly, overcast afternoon with a light coating of fresh snow dusting the ground at the Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown, a procession of about 200 vehicles snaked its way from a nearby church to the burial ground.
As an honor guard from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst stood at attention, pallbearers removed Turnpu’s flag-draped casket from a black hearse. Veterans, some leaning on canes and many decorated with medals and holding flags, saluted as the casket passed.
Turnpu was found dead of natural causes Dec. 9 at his Waterford home by a neighbor. He lived alone and had few acquaintances. He was married and divorced in 1980; the couple had no children.
A police officer had asked LeRoy P. Wooster, owner of LeRoy Wooster Funeral Home in Atco, to help. He donated his services, a casket, and transportation of the remains to the cemetery.
It took a month of planning, but Wooster was determined to give Turnpu a proper funeral. He put a notice in a local newspaper hoping to locate any family members, and launched a social media campaign to recruit the public to attend. They answered the call and came in droves, including two buglers.
”It’s good that the good in people came out. This is how it should be,” said Ryan Berger, 40, of Jackson, N.J., whose father is buried at the cemetery. “It’s the least I could do.”
A group of mourners from the Vietnam Veterans of America New Jersey Chapter 899 in Wrightstown was at the cemetery for a funeral earlier Friday when they learned about the service for Turnpu. They stayed for the second service that day. On any given day, there are 15 services at the cemetery.
“We’re all brothers. Nobody should go out alone,” said Ordway VanHee, the group’s third vice president.
Turnpu was described by a neighbor as a loner. But Wooster was able to gain information after finding a letter from the Veterans Administration from a visit to a Philadelphia VA hospital in Turnpu’s belongings. Turnpu served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1966 and received an honorable discharge, which made him eligible for a military burial, he said. The state provides a free burial plot to veterans and their spouses.
”It was the right thing to do,” said Wooster. “I didn’t want him to be buried alone.”
The funeral announcement went viral, and hundreds of condolence messages were posted on social media and on the funeral home’s website. One person wrote:
“I do not know this man but I am here to say, Thank you for your service Sir. May God and all that went before you, meet you on the other side. Your service to our great nation will never be forgotten. Rest in Peace.”
The Rev. Rochelle Coles of Cherry Hill, a retired Air Force chaplain, said she attended the funeral because of a motto: “We have a saying in the military that we don’t leave a troop behind.”
Born in Estonia on July 3, 1941, Turnpu came to the United States with his mother, Laine, after his father died, according to his immigration papers, Wooster said. He became a naturalized citizen in 1955.
Turnpu worked as a truck driver for a South Jersey firm. He didn’t belong to any veterans groups, Wooster said.
Camden County Freeholder William Moen was among the officials on hand Friday. Moen, the board’s veterans’ affairs liaison, said Turnpu’s death was a reminder that more must be done to provide services to veterans.
”Our job is to make sure that this never happens,” Moen said.
After the service, a steady stream of mourners lined up to file past Turnpu’s brown wooden casket. Some wept openly, touched it respectfully, or saluted. The casket was later taken to a field for its final resting place, and lowered into the dark soil.
In November, another Vietnam veteran, Stanley Stoltz, died in Nebraska with no known relatives. After a funeral notice appeared in the Omaha World-Herald, more than 1,500 people showed up at the funeral.
A chaplain from the Pine Hill American Legion post officiated at Turnpu’s service, citing Psalm 23 and bursting into song. Aidan Peterson, 13, of Philadelphia, sounded “Taps." Peterson believes he saw Turnpu at the VA hospital when he played the cello for veterans there on Thanksgiving.
”If it’s the same man, it’s somehow fitting that he would play for him for a last time,” said his mother, Amy Shumoski.
Rogers Ramirez, 39, of New Egypt, a former Army captain, belted out “The caissons go rolling along,” with many in the standing-room crowd singing along. Asked why he felt compelled to attend the service, he replied: “There but for the grace of God go I,” pointing at Turnpu’s casket.
Wooster had to figure out a final detail Friday — who would be presented with the American flag that draped the casket. He decided to give it to Tom Engkilterra of Toms River, N.J., regional coordinator of the National League of POW/MIA Families.
After folding the flag with precision, the honor guard presented the flag, saying, “On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
Engkilterra said he plans to display the flag in a case in his home and share Turnpu’s story.