NILES, Mich. (WNDU) - A public funeral was held Wednesday in Niles for a Vietnam veteran who had no surviving family members.
More than 1,000 people from not only across the area but across the country arrived to honor Wayne Lee Wilson.
Wilson served in the United States Army from 1971 to 1977, during the Vietnam War.
He had made funeral arrangements at Brown Funeral Home in Niles, and after his passing, friends and neighbors worked with the funeral home to organize military honors for Wilson.
While he didn't have blood relatives present, he had a much larger family with him on Wednesday.
“He would be looking down with his head in hands saying, 'Oh my God, what did they do?'” said Wilson’s close friend, Charlotte Andrews. “I only expected maybe even 12 people to show up… but this is hundreds. It's fantastic.”
“We found out that this particular veteran does not have any family; and as color guard, we honor every veteran,” said Petra Bernard of the Osceola American Legion Post 308. “Every veteran deserves to have their military rights, so we made sure that we came out here to pay our respects to this soldier.”
“[Wilson] was very proud that he served in Vietnam and was able to come home,” Andrews said. “He said he was very fortunate, because many of our Vietnam veterans came home crippled. When he would start talking about it, he would start crying, because it touched him very much.
“When the Vietnam veterans came back themselves, they were not greeted very well themselves. So, just to see now how they're honored, it does my heart good just to see it.”
The crowd that showed up to honor Wilson left his close friends speechless.
“It just shows that the community will step in and stand up and support a person that doesn't have anybody else,” Andrews said. “All I can say is thank you. That's all I can say.”
The full military honors were given by the U.S. Army and members of American Legion Post 51 of Buchanan.
Wayne Wilson was a wounded Vietnam vet who lived life in a wheelchair and died with no surviving relatives.
“It said on Facebook he didn’t have any family. He does have family,” said Kenneth Creech, who came from Ohio to Silverbrook Cemetery in Niles. “Everybody that stepped foot in Vietnam is a brother.”
Hundreds of vets and community mourners flooded the grounds at Silverbrook for the graveside service.
“Once the word gets out, vets support vets,” said Jeff Morgan, of Niles.
By the time the service rolled around, mourners rolled in from near and far, and Wilson got what he deserved.
“You refused to let a warrior be buried alone,” Pastor Mike Smith told the crowd. “We all realized that Sarge deserved better. Every veteran deserves better than dying alone and being buried alone.”
The crowd was too big to accurately count and plenty large to impress the handful of mourners who knew Sarge best.
“He’s overwhelmed as we are. We’re just totally overwhelmed,” Andrews said. “We were just wanting him to have military honors.”
It was also an honor to have Niles Mayor Nick Shelton address the crowd.
“General George S. Patton Jr. said it best. 'It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.' Thank God for Wayne Wilson and thank you all for being a part of his legacy,” Shelton said.