- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2011

SHERWOOD, Ark. | More than 300 people showed up for the funeral of an airman most of them didn’t know Friday, drawn to the cemetery after members of an honor guard feared no one would show up to attend the burial of a veteran thought to be homeless and without a family.

Leroy Earl Brumbaugh died two weeks ago at age 74, but until his relatives contacted the funeral home sometime last week, it appeared the only ones planning to attend Friday’s graveside service at the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery were veterans, active members of the Army and Air Force and a patriotic group of motorcycle riders.

“We don’t know what his circumstances were in life or how he ended up where he was, but it’s the same as someone killed in Afghanistan,” said Mark Taylor, a former captain of the Arkansas Patriot Guard Riders who still rides with the group. “We are strangers to them, and they are strangers to us, but for that one day, we’re brothers.”

Jim Bradburn, funeral director of the Little Rock Funeral Home, said he had not been able to contact anyone who knew Mr. Brumbaugh, not even family.

“Nobody had any numbers on the family, and the numbers they did have were disconnected,” he said.

As it turns out, Mr. Brumbaugh did have a family, and they had heard about the airman’s death about a week after he died — reaching out to a bartender after not hearing from him for a while.

“I would call him every week, and two weeks ago he wasn’t there,” said Mr. Brumbaugh’s daughter, Tina. “So last week I called the bar he used to always go to and they told me the news.”

By the time the family made arrangements to travel from south Arkansas to Sherwood for the service, veterans groups had used a chain of e-mails to help the honor guard line up veterans from the Army and Air Force to attend.

Mr. Bradburn said a family’s late discovery of a pending funeral is not that unusual, but that Friday’s service was by far its largest for a relatively unknown veteran.

“I think a large part of why so many people came out was because they were honoring a soldier who had put 20 years in and felt it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Bob Oldham, chief of public affairs at the Little Rock Air Force Base, said anyone who served in the military would agree that a veteran should never be buried without their comrades present, even if they were never acquainted.

“You always want to see one of the nation’s warriors surrounded by friends,” he said. “If you’re wearing a uniform, you’re a friend.”

Mr. Brumbaugh’s family said he had served 20 years in the Air Force as a flight simulator technician. He served during Vietnam and traveled briefly overseas to Japan. He exited honorably from service as a tech sergeant in 1975. He had been living most recently with a friend in Hot Springs.

“He was a very kindhearted individual,” said his ex-wife, Gladys Popso. “He was the biggest jokester you’d ever met.”

The funeral attracted the Arkansas Patriot Guard Riders, which attends funeral services of fallen veterans at the request of the veteran’s family and shields mourning families from protesters during a ceremony, if needed. The U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to bar members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church from protesting outside military funerals, but the Riders weren’t needed Friday as a shield as only mourners gathered.

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