Retired Air Force Master Sgt. John Stumpf may have lived alone, but he didn’t die that way.
Stumpf, a reclusive 82-year-old with no known family, was laid to rest Thursday with full military honors — including a rifle volley and the playing of “Taps” — provided by a Hurlburt Field honor guard.
The graveside service at Bonifay City Cemetery was attended by dozens of people, most of whom would have been strangers to him, and most of whom learned of his death via social media.
“I think no one should have to go home alone,” said Navy veteran Bruce Robinson as he stood on a gentle slope above the gravesite.
Robinson wasn’t surprised at the number of people at the funeral.
“Veterans want to stand together,” he said.
Also at the funeral was Jeanette Williams, who took her 10-year-old son, Randall, out of school to attend.
“He wants to join the military,” said Williams, “and I just wanted him to see and understand that even though we didn’t know him, he served and deserved our respect.”
Stumpf joined the Air Force in 1956 and served at a number of bases before being sent to Vietnam. After Vietnam, Stumpf was assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command, where he was involved in conducting psychological operations missions across Southeast Asia and transporting weapons, supplies and equipment aboard a C-130 aircraft.
About two years ago, he moved next door to Lester Boswell and his wife, Rita, who developed a friendship of sorts with the ailing Stumpf, who stayed mostly inside his home. Lester Boswell cut Stumpf’s grass, and as he discovered the extent of Stumpf’s medical problems — he suffered extensively with a throat cancer that limited him to a mostly liquid diet — Boswell helped him navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, taking him to appointments and checking on him regularly.
“He’d get mad at me,” Boswell said during the eulogy he offered for Stumpf, “but I checked on him every day.”
Stumpf brought a dry wit to coping with his health issues, Boswell said, once telling him, “If you find me dead, tell the Air Force not to send me any more checks.”
In the end, after Stumpf’s brief stay in a local assisted-living facility, Boswell made funeral arrangements, including a final resting place in a Boswell family plot. When installed, Stumpf’s headstone will be engraved with his name on the front, and with the words “Friend of Boswells” on the back.
“He was a good friend,” Boswell said, his voice breaking. “I loved him.”
In the days after Stumpf died Sunday, Boswell asked his son Terry, a former Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) Green Beret, to spread the word about Stumpf’s funeral. With the help of a couple of area Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, the news circulated quickly across social media.
“I’m just shocked,” Lester Boswell said as he surveyed the crowd at Thursday’s funeral. “It’s wonderful. … Mr. John would be so proud.”
After the service, sitting with the folded American flag presented to the Boswells from atop Stumpf’s casket, Rita Boswell called it “a great honor” to have the flag as a keepsake and remembrance of Stumpf.
“He’s just really been a blessing to our family,” she said.
In a prayer at the end of the service, Capt. Tom West, chaplain for the 1st Special Operations Wing, said of Stumpf, “We’re grateful for his life, and for his service to the Air Force and to this great country.”
Following the service, West — like Stumpf before him, a part of Air Force Special Operations Command, said it was special to see “the legacy of men like him who paved the way. It feels good to be able to honor somebody like that.”
At least two people who served with Stumpf attended the graveside service, and in separate interviews, both remembered him with the same sentence: “He was a hell of a loadmaster,” they said. The loadmaster is the aircrew member responsible for cargo.
As the crowd thinned Thursday, one of those two fellow aircrew members, former Air Force Capt. Lee Hess, walked to Stumpf’s casket and rendered a final salute.
“Even if he got injured, he would press on,” said Hess admiringly.
Stumpf’s other fellow aircrew member, Bob Meller, who served with Stumpf in Okinawa, remembered one instance in which Stumpf fell from a height in their aircraft during a flight and broke his leg. He didn’t mention anything about it until the aircraft landed, Meller remembered.
“He just wanted to get the mission done,” Meller said.
But even as the estimated 100 people — airmen, local emergency responders, area Veterans of Foreign Wars members and others just wanting to pay their respects — found reason to celebrate Stumpf’s life, there was cause for regret as well, as people realized Stumpf had lived among them all but unknown.
Asked what he was thinking as he rendered his final salute to Stumpf, Hess said he was remorseful that Stumpf hadn’t been among fellow veterans as his life wound toward its end.
“No one knew he was here,” Hess said. “I was thinking, ‘John, I wish to heck I would have known you were here. We would have brought you back to the community where you belonged.’ “
If there is one message to be taken from Stumpf’s life, Terry Boswell said, it is that people should check on their elderly veteran neighbors.
“Everybody needs a friend,” he said.
© 2019 The Walton Sun
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