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Strangers invited to funeral for Vietnam veteran who died alone. ‘I wanted to honor his final wishes,’ his nurse said.

Hundreds of people are expected to attend the funeral of retired Army Sgt. Matthew Kelly, who died alone July 1 in Philadelphia. The Vietnam veteran asked his nurse to plan his funeral, complete with a parade, bagpipes and a 21-gun salute, honors that Kelly said he never received.

In this file photo, Staff Sgt. John Westfall (left) and Sgt. Thomas Morris perform the flag-folding ritual at the service for veterans buried at the Washington Crossing National Cemetery.
In this file photo, Staff Sgt. John Westfall (left) and Sgt. Thomas Morris perform the flag-folding ritual at the service for veterans buried at the Washington Crossing National Cemetery.Read moreBRADLEY C BOWER / For The Inquirer

Former Army Sgt. Matthew Francis Kelly made a dying wish to his nurse: He wanted to be buried with full military honors, a parade, bagpipes, and a 21-gun salute.

In death, Kelly will get what he did not receive in life when he returned home to Philadelphia from the Vietnam War nearly 50 years ago. His nurse, Jennifer Richello, has recruited a band of strangers to keep the promise she made to Kelly on his deathbed a few months ago.

“I wanted to honor his final wishes, and love and respect for his service to our country,” Richello, a registered nurse, said in a statement Tuesday. “Kelly was a good man and deserves this.”

Richello also made a special request to mourners: bring a can of Pepsi to the funeral. Kelly loved the soft drink, she said.

Her posts on social media have gone viral, and hundreds are expected at Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Upper Makefield Township at 1 p.m. Wednesday when Kelly is laid to rest. The funeral procession will be escorted to the cemetery from Galzerano Funeral Home in Philadelphia by police, motorcycle brigades, and scores of veterans. Along the route, people have been asked to wave American flags.

“No serviceman should ever be forgotten, whether they have family or not,” said Bob Crawford, national president of Warriors Watch in Glenside, a group of motorcycle veterans and riders who honor service members. “These guys went over and fought for us and protected our country. The least we can do is be there for them.”

Kelly, 70, died alone at a Philadelphia medical facility on June 24 after a lengthy illness. Because of confidentiality laws, organizers could not identify the facility or the cause of death.

Little is known about Kelly, who was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 14, 1949, and grew up in the city. His parents and an older brother died years ago. Kelly was married, but was divorced early and had no children.

After graduating from high school, Kelly enlisted on Jan. 14, 1969, his 20th birthday. He completed training at Fort Bragg, N.C, and Fort Sill, Okla., according to his military record. He was deployed to Vietnam in December 1969 and served as a communications chief in the 13th Battalion Signal, First Cavalry Division.

It is likely that Kelly saw intense combat duty in Vietnam because of his unit and position, which required him to carry a radio on his back, said Paige Peters, a volunteer who is assisting with the funeral. He received three medals: a National Service Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal, and a Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Kelly left Vietnam in November 1970 and received an honorable discharge, his records show. Little is known about his life after the military. He returned to Philadelphia. Richello said he had a hard life, “and he was one of the forgotten.”

At one point, Kelly became homeless, and eventually became a ward of the state, funeral organizers say. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was placed in a facility where Richello became his nurse for about a year. During a chat in March, Kelly spelled out his funeral wishes to her. With help from volunteers across the region, Richello has meticulously carried out the details.

His resting place will be at the only active national cemetery in the region, spanning more than 200 acres. A free grave site and marker or headstone are available to eligible armed forces members and their spouses who met certain active-duty requirements.

Among those expected to attend the service are members of the Guardians of the National Cemetery, military brethren who gather at the Bucks County cemetery every month to carry out a solemn ritual to pay homage to members of the military who, like Kelly, died alone.

“I think it’s wonderful, but it’s just a shame that there are still so many people dying alone,” said Robert Craven, president of the Guardians.

In January, more than 1,000 mourners showed up at Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown, Burlington County, for services for Peter Turnpu, 77, of Atco, who died without any known next of kin. The funeral director who handled his arrangements said he didn’t want him to be buried alone and asked the public to attend.

At Wednesday’s graveside service for Kelly, there will be prayers by the American Legion and a tribute by the Vietnam Veterans Association. A bugler will play “Taps.” The flag that will drape his closed casket will be presented to Richello, who plans to keep it in her office along with Kelly’s photograph.

“She doesn’t want people to stop saying his name,” Peters said.

His biggest desire was a parade, Peters said. Kelly wanted a celebration denied to many Vietnam veterans when they returned home from the largely unpopular war.

“In the end, he was at peace,” Peters said Tuesday. “He was really happy to know that he was going to finally get his respect.”