Homeless man's funeral attended by hundreds of fellow vets who didn't know him

(Photo courtesy of Des Moines Register)

(Photo courtesy of Des Moines Register)

Hundreds gathered at Iowa Veterans Home Cemetery this afternoon to pay their respects to a once homeless Korean War Navy veteran named Charles ‘Chuck’ Lanam.  They didn’t know Lanam — and they didn’t know each other — but today on the burial hill the strangers came together as family.

“This man would have been buried on his own,” said Simon Conway, Des Moines resident and radio host at 1040 WHO. “There was literally nobody coming to this … this man had nobody, no family, no friends. There was no one to carry his casket, there was no one to give the flag to … no one to tell us about our grateful nation. Today, Chuck was laid to rest with full military honors and around 400 Iowans in attendance. We make a difference.”

See footage from the funeral here.

Lanam was born September 16, 1934 in Fairfield, Iowa. He was the son of Christopher and Marian (Byers).  He attended school in the Fairfield area. He served four years in U.S. Navy aboard USS Valley Forge during the Korean conflict. After retiring from the military, Lanam resided in Tennessee and Iowa and did electrical contracting. He never married. He was homeless for a number of years until February 2015, when moved into the Iowa Veterans Home. He remained there until he passed away.

This veteran, who never owned a computer, much less a had Facebook page, posthumously became a viral topic on the social media platform last week. Mitchell Family Funeral Home director Marty Mitchell reached out to his friends and community after Lanam’s death asking for their help in honoring this veteran’s life with this post

I’m sitting in my office right now and contemplating the rest of the week- and really struggling with one thing that I would like to open up and share with all of you- and no, not a joke, something real. On Monday, we are going to bury a man who served our country honorably, and probably before many of us were born. He has no family – absolutely no family, so our staff and the chaplain from IVH will gather on a quiet hillside at IVH and put this man to rest. No pallbearers, no mourners, no flowers, no one to even present a flag to saying his service was recognized. If you so desire and it’s in your hearts, we are having a service at 1:30 p.m. at the cemetery at IVH. Even though you did not know him, this man Charles Lanam, you are welcome to come and honor his life or serve as a pallbearer or even as important, send your prayers. Death equalizes us in the end, but before that time, appreciate that you do have a family. God bless you all my friends!

That request was shared over 1,700 times. It attracted Patriot Riders and members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. A suit was donated for Lanam to be buried in, and pallbearers volunteered. In response, Mitchell posted the following to his page:

“I truly think Mr. Lanam is smiling down at all of you for caring about him. He might be overwhelmed, but I do think he is happy. He now gets to rejoin his mom, his dad and his sister who went on before. Thanks to the Iowa Veterans Home for making his last years a home and family- a change he deserved from being homeless, and thanks for making his resting spot available. God bless all of you for focusing on what is important in life…”

This afternoon, Lanam’s coffin was draped in a flag with hundreds in attendance.  “Last Wednesday, I expected to be standing on a lonely hill overlooking the veteran’s zone with Marty and a few staff members saying a quiet farewell to Chuck today,” Chaplain Craig Nelson said before beginning the eulogy. “Instead, I find myself surrounded by those who were moved by his story and wanted to come out so he might not be laid to rest alone.”

Mary Drake, business manager at Mitchell Family Funeral Home said any donations they receive in Charles’ honor will be sent to Iowa Veteran’s Home.