Hundreds of people stood in the chilly air of Omaha National Cemetery on Tuesday to honor a Vietnam veteran who died supposedly without any family.
A line of cars stretched from the cemetery down Highway 50 to Interstate-80 at 2 p.m. Tuesday, the scheduled start time for the interment. People in military fatigues, Vietnam veteran jackets and civilian attire packed the hillside, waiting in near silence to honor a veteran they did not know.
Private First Class Stanley C. Stoltz was a private man. He served his country in Vietnam, but his military service record does not stand out among countless others. But when news spread that he might be buried alone and without family, an enormous wave of support swelled, culminating in a crowd of more than 400 people.
“This is the first time we’ve had this kind of crowd,” said Chaplain Roy Edwards before the ceremony. “Most get six to eight cars, 15 at most. This is hundreds.”
The rallying cry began with a funeral notice in the World-Herald. Good Shepherd Funeral Home director Mike Hoy said he was initially told Stoltz had no living family when he died on Nov. 18. The notice went viral, drawing support nationwide, including from CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“There was some family that eventually came forward,” Hoy said. “The outpouring of support has been great. It’s just an honor.”
Taps at the funeral of Vietnam veteran Stanley Stoltz. He was interred at Omaha National Cemetery in front of a crowd of at least 400, mostly strangers.
His brother & hospice care workers attended, but his flag will remain here at the cemetery to be flown on Memorial Day. pic.twitter.com/2Nyxk7mp91
— Chris Peters (@_ChrisPeters) November 27, 2018
Stoltz’s brother Keith attended the funeral, but declined to speak to the media. Stoltz was also supported by members of Endless Journey Hospice.
“He would definitely be touched,” said Amy Douglas, who works for Endless Journey and said she knew Stoltz.
Stoltz was born on May 29, 1945, and grew up on a farm in Curlew, Iowa. He had three brothers and a sister and friends in northwest Iowa and Bennington.
Those friends remember him as a hard worker and a typical farm boy.
“Stan was the kind of guy that could jump on any piece of equipment and run it,” said former Bennington Mayor Bill Bohn, who lived a quarter-mile from Stoltz as a child and employed him later as a bricklayer.
Stoltz was drafted into the Vietnam War. Friends don’t remember him speaking about his time overseas.
When he returned, he worked for an International Harvester dealer in Emmetsburg, Iowa. He lost an eye shortly after returning from Vietnam, Bohn said.
After that, Stoltz moved to Bennington, where he married Pamela Muhleka in 1974. Pam died in 1984 from cancer.
“It messed him up pretty bad when she died,” said Laurie Olsberg Shields, who grew up in Curlew with Stoltz and lived across the street from him in Bennington.
Stoltz moved back to Curlew, she said, remarried, then divorced. He never had any children.
Just about to begin. The crowd is politely braving the cold. pic.twitter.com/aHjCQmBdaI
— Chris Peters (@_ChrisPeters) November 27, 2018
While in Curlew, Stoltz looked after his mother until her death. He spent some time in a nursing home after that, Bohn said, then returned to Bennington. He moved around and spent time in and out of nursing homes before he died.
After reading his funeral notice in the paper, Shields talked with former classmates and encouraged them to attend the funeral.
“It’s too bad it didn’t happen sooner when he was living that people reached out to him,” she said. “It sounds like he could have used a friend.”
But on Tuesday, Stoltz made hundreds of new friends.
“There’s an old saying that nobody loves a veteran like another veteran,” cemetery representative Mark Macko said to the crowd. “That was certainly shown today.”
Dennis Schissel, president of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, said funerals for Vietnam veterans typically draw between 150 and 200 people, with crowds mostly made up of veterans.
“We come together for something like this,” he said. “He was one of us at this time.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the flag atop Stoltz’s casket was folded and given to Dick Harrington from the Final Solute Society. His family declined his flag on Tuesday, but they still have time to claim it. If the flag goes unclaimed, it will remain at the cemetery and be flown on Memorial Day, Harrington said.
“I was very moved,” Harrington said. “The fact that this many people cared about him, maybe three-quarters of them were vets, they just wanted to be here.”
One attendee, Mary Rosenthal, said she tries to attend the interment of every indigent veteran and those who have little to no known family. She began doing so in May 2017 when she attended the interment of U.S. Marine Donald Stark, a Vietnam veteran who died at 68 with no known family.
“It kind of got me thinking there’s got to be more than him out there,” she said. “So I got the list of veterans that the Omaha National Cemetery believes don’t have anybody in the area or anybody at all.”
Each Memorial Day, Rosenthal puts out a call on social media for locals to adopt the gravesites of those veterans with little to no known family. The first year, 2017, that list was nine people long. This year it was 14.
“It’s just something I did because I thought it should be done,” she said. “If somebody can put flowers on somebody who doesn’t have anybody to do that, it’s a cool project.”
Visitors left flowers and gifts on the casket. They wiped away tears. And they thanked one another for being there to support a stranger who served.