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Paying respects to US Army Veteran

A veteran who died recently at the Veterans Victory House in Walterboro was given final honors by a group of local men and women who are committed to honoring those who have served.

US Army veteran James O’Kelly, 83, died in the early morning hours of Sept. 20th. Because he was a military veteran, he was also a resident of the Veterans Victory House, a senior living community in Walterboro that focuses on providing nursing care and daily needs to those seniors who have served in the military.

Typically, when a resident at the Veterans Victory House dies, that person is carried out of the community while receiving salutes from the facility’s staff. Often, American flags line the hallway and military music is played. In this case, however, O’Kelly was carried to a hearse in silence. His death had occurred during the evacuation of Hurricane Florence.

Because his family was also stranded in Conway from flooding, none of his family could be there for his death.

“Because he had died so early in the morning, too, we weren’t able to do everything we wanted. And that didn’t sit well,” said Kay Lewis, director of medical records for the Veterans Victory House. Lewis began orchestrating a way to honor the veteran. She contacted the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcyclists from across the Lowcountry. This group serves veterans.

With Lewis’ help, Herndon Funeral Home brought the veteran back to the Veterans Victory House, where he received full honors while being escorted from the building. Fourteen motorcyclists then escorted him through Walterboro back to the funeral home.

American flags lined the highway as he was taken to the funeral home. Multiple members of the public stood at attention as the hearse drove past.

“We were able to give him a proper escort to a proper farewell,” she said. “No veteran should be taken from our building alone. This was a community effort to honor a man who did so much for our nation. We pulled together.”

Throughout the process, Lewis says officials with the Veterans Victory House stayed in touch with his family. The entire procession was recorded. That video was then given to his surviving family members. “This way, they had closure because they couldn’t be there with him when he died,” said Lewis.

Lewis credits the local community and the motorcyclists for coming together. Patriot Hospice also helped to plan the ceremony, she said.

“People who didn’t even ride came to support this veteran. It was so touching,” she said.

“I’ve been very emotional about this. I’ve cried so many tears, because I’m grateful at what our community has done.”

The Patriot Guard Riders is a federally-recognized non-profit group that honors soldiers and veterans. They assist in welcome military members home and in sending them off on deployments.

Based out of Johns Island, the group also has several programs to help wounded warriors.

Heather Walters (1411 Posts)