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Veterans muster a final honor for Marine who died broke, alone

PLANT CITY — Charles D. Rhinehart lived a quiet life in a trailer near Clair-Mel, rooting for the Buccaneers, drinking Busch beer and Wild Turkey bourbon.

He was a slight man, barely 105 pounds, according to one friend, and cashed his Social Security checks at a package store where he had an account. His nickname was "Turkey," named for the booze he bought when he could afford it.

Beyond that, the stories diverge.

He didn't talk much and was even more mum about his past, friends said. He might have had seven children, lived in Louisiana and worked in the Merchant Marine. Some said he came from Buffalo, N.Y. He drank heavily, that was for sure. And he died alone.

Those few details don't matter now, though.

What matters is that Rhinehart, 78, who was found on the floor of his trailer on Jan. 12, was a United States Marine.

• • •

Walt Raysick got the call two weeks ago. Verna McKelvin, general manager of Wells Memorial Funeral Home in Plant City, told him a former Marine was down.

At first she thought Rhinehart was homeless but then learned he was indigent with no relatives to claim the body. Raysick wasn't about to let a brother in arms leave this world without the honors due him.

Raysick, a retired master chief petty officer in the Navy, sent emails and called friends at the American Legion post in Riverview. He contacted the Marine Corps League, which also calls the post home.

Word spread to the Rolling Thunder and Patriot Guard motorcycle veterans groups.

One of theirs was gone.

Within days, the groups had mustered enough support among local veterans for a military funeral.

On Friday morning, about 50 people gathered around Rhinehart's oak casket at Wells Funeral Home for a half-hour service.

"In this case, we will be his family, his brothers and sisters in arms," Raysick, 73, said.

• • •

Rhinehart's funeral was the fourth in five years given to an indigent or homeless Hillsborough County veteran. The memorials are handled by Service Corporation International, which owns Wells and six other area funeral homes, in cooperation with veterans' groups, local medical examiners and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rhinehart qualified for the honor because he had no living relatives, was broke and served honorably in the military, in this case the Marine Corps from October 1952 to July 1954, during the Korean War.

Finding even that much information wasn't easy. Before releasing Rhinehart's body to the funeral home, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office first needed to know whether Rhinehart had any relatives who could claim the body.

For weeks, M.E. investigator Henry Poage searched government databases and websites and interviewed friends and neighbors. He confirmed Rhinehart's Social Security number and date and place of birth, but found no relatives. He then called the Veterans Administration. Rhinehart, it turned out, was a Marine.

Rhinehart was last seen Jan. 10. Two days later, a friendEric Bielke, peered through a screen to check on him and saw Rhinehart's body, Poage said. He had died of complications from chronic alcoholism.

To Poage, that last detail didn't matter. His next call was to Wells Memorial.

"Someone who has served their country and put their life on the line and maybe for whatever reason ends up estranged from family or on the street or alone, when they die and there is nobody to claim them, they still did service to our country and to me they're entitled to a military funeral," he said.

With an American flag draped across Rhinehart's casket, the Rev. Jim Brady of East Thonotosassa Baptist Church spoke about how Rhinehart lacked family members to grieve for him, but nevertheless had brothers and sisters in the assembled veterans.

Afterward, the flag was folded and the casket wheeled outside. Five members of the Marine Corps League fired three rifle shots each. Then retired Marine Col. Dave Blizzard played taps while the veterans saluted.

On Tuesday, Rhinehart will be buried at the National Cemetery in Bushnell.

"Ostensibly with no family and dying alone, it just tugged on my heart strings," said Blizzard, a 73-year-old Silver Star recipient. "But he does have family. He does have family. He is my brother."

Veterans muster a final honor for Marine who died broke, alone 02/15/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 15, 2013 11:32pm]

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