No one left behind: Unclaimed veterans buried side-by-side in Sarasota service

Army veteran Sandy Gessler has been in tears all Thursday morning, with good reason.

"They’re tears of happiness," Gessler said.

The historian of American Legion Post 312 in Sarasota has spent the last several months researching and then planning a funeral for two unclaimed veterans. 

"We have a motto, ‘leave no one left behind,’ and this is what we mean," she continued. "We don’t leave them at a funeral home unclaimed. We will claim them, we will bury them with honors like they deserve because they’re our heroes."

The men were Albert Hall, a Korean War veteran, and Manny Fluker, a Vietnam Veteran who had been homeless in Sarasota for the last 30 years.

Gessler says a local funeral home had Hall’s remains for five months, but could never find family to bury him.

"They called me and asked if I could research him, and find out more," she said. "I discovered he was a Korean War vet and got approval for him to be buried at the national cemetery. But then, I got a call about Mr. Fluker."

She says, with Hall’s funeral already planned and Fluker’s military records tracked down quickly, it was a joy to hear that Sarasota National Cemetery agreed to do a joint funeral and bury them side by side. Even more joyous, as the news spread online about the upcoming funeral, the American Legion Post learned Fluker had a son in Florida.

"They had just met three years ago," she said.

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Fluker was a helicopter mechanic during the Vietnam War, from 1966 to 1968. James Smith, who met Fluker along Main Street two years ago, forged a relationship with the man.

"Everyone loved Manny; he never asked for anything," Smith said. "He was very humble, very nice. He lost some of his mind in the war, but he didn’t lose his heart."

Not much is known about Hall, other than the fact that he served in the Army. Gessler reached out to several potential family members, but never heard back. 

She has worked tirelessly over the years on the issue of unclaimed veterans. She wishes the public knew more about how easily many could end up in what she calls "pauper cemeteries."

"The county has sections, or plots for those who can’t afford a funeral," she said. "And we call it a pauper’s grave. But no veteran should have to go there."