Asheville business owner ensures homeless vet is laid to rest with dignity

Posted at 2:44 PM, Oct 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-29 16:44:20-04

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    Black Mountain, NC (WLOS) — A proud local veteran who was homeless in the final years of his life was laid to rest in a poignant military funeral.

Army Private Walter Anthony Ledford died of liver cancer on September 29 in hospice care at Charles George VA Medical Center. Sadly, he didn’t have the luxury of loved ones by his side. The VA attempted to contact his family to no avail.

When Dale Groce of Groce Funeral Home saw a death notice published in the newspaper, he decided to act.

“It’s sad that he had no family here to be with him in his last days,” said Groce, who served in the Air Force. “And I said if no one shows up to claim his body, Groce Funeral Home would like to provide a casket and facilitate a military funeral.”

The brief but touching service was held Wednesday morning at Western Carolina State Veterans Cemetery in Black Mountain, where valor is valued.

“We know how much the veterans mean to our country,” said Groce, who served in the Air Force. “So, we need to give them the dignity that they deserve.”

The thousands of men and women buried there are gone but not forgotten. The morning dew on the grass was perhaps symbolic of so many graveside tears.

That was the backdrop as the hearse arrived for Ledford’s funeral service. The honor guard stood in salute.

“It is an honor today,” Reverend Allen Rash of Trinity Baptist Church said at the service, reminding us how fragile life can be.

“That it’s here for a moment but it passes away,” he told the small gathering.

He touched on the common thread that connects him to a man he never knew.

“Every time we see a veteran and see a flag draped over a coffin, it brings back memories of one day my father was the same way,” Rash said. “And we thank him today for that service.”

Tim McElyea of the Veterans Restoration Quarters came to pay his respects. Ledford was homeless and lived at the facility for two years. Tim remembers Walter as a thoughtful man who mostly kept to himself.

“I don’t think he would’ve wanted all the attention,” McElyea said with a laugh.

Ledford once posted Happy Holiday Wishes live on Facebook. His short video message gave us a sense of the man.

“We love you all, Merry Christmas and a Happy, Happy New Year!” he said with a jolly demeanor.

“That’s Walter,” McElyea said. “After he passed, we found out on his Facebook page that he had opened a GoFundMe account to help other homeless veterans, and he didn’t even say anything about it.”

Walter might have been surprised to learn he left such an impression on the people he knew.

Emotions came to the forefront when the Honor Guard folded the flag draped on his casket and presented it McElyea.

“I’m a veteran, too. I’m a combat veteran,” McElyea said, tearing up. “You know that’s the last representation of your service, and for that to be put in your hands, it’s really powerful.”

McElyea said he will keep the flag for now, but still hopes to give it to the Ledford family. If his family can’t be reached, he will make sure that flag has a special place at the Veterans Restoration Quarters.

We know that Ledford went to Lincolnton High School and has a son, who the VA was unable to reach.

But there’s so much we don’t know about Mr. Ledford, making the ceremony feel even more somber. Even so, everyone involved found comfort in the fact he was laid to rest with honor.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Grove said. “He is now resting among other veterans.”

On Monday afternoon, Walter Ledford’s son reached out to News 13.

Blake Ledford of Gastonia said he learned of his dad’s death after seeing News 13’s video of the funeral on Facebook.

Blake appreciates everyone involved in his dad’s funeral service.

He said he recently patched things up with his father and is devastated by his death.

“To lose a father is horrible to lose a father you are just getting to know is just as bad because of all the lost time and memories that were never made and now never will be,” Blake said.

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