TIFTON — It was an emotional memorial service for Fred Connell at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Tifton on Wednesday despite the service taking place a quarter-century after his death.
Connell died from a rare form of cancer in 1994 and although he served honorably in the United States Air Force, he did not receive a military funeral with a folded flag, a 21-gun salute and a military headstone.
“Go back with me 25 years to the Fred Connell home as his family, and especially his 5-year-old daughter, Courtney, watched her daddy pass from this life into the next life, which is Heaven,” Albany American Legion Post 30 Chaplain Doc Williams said at the service. “This child’s heart was filled with confusion over the loss of her father and the emptiness that was left behind.
“As the passing of time grew her into adulthood, she had an increasing desire to honor her daddy for his love for his family and his service to his country in the United States Air Force. Today, 25 years later, this heartfelt desire of this young woman is being fulfilled in these moments. It is our honor to honor your father.”
Early this year, Courtney Connell noticed that the original headstone, which was not a military headstone, was missing from her father’s grave. She set about trying to get a military headstone to replace it.
“I was trying to call some people around, and I was having a hard time,” Connell said. “Nobody was willing to help me.”
Through what seemed like divine intervention, Connell got Dan Brewer’s contact information from a Vietnam veteran. Brewer is the commander of American Legion Post 30 in Albany, and when he heard about Connell’s situation and quest to get her late father the honor and respect he deserved, Brewer knew he had to help.
“I called him, and he said, ‘We’ll see what we can work out’,” Connell said. “’I want to help you.’ He called me the next day and said ‘We’re going to have a military service for your father, and we’re going to have a 21-gun salute.’ It was a blessing. I was happy that it was going to be done.”
Connell was emotional as she spoke at the memorial service and remembered the love her late father had given her.
“My father was my guardian angel,” she said. “I believe he was sending me signs throughout my life.”
Connell and her daughter, Destiny, carried roses and laid them at the grave of their father and grandfather.
“The roses represent love and how much he loved us,” Connell explained.
After Connell and Williams’ comments, members of the American Legion fired off a 21-gun salute and then folded an American flag that they presented to Connell.
Brewer presented Connell with the flag and explained that although they don’t know much about her father’s service, they do know that he served, that he served honorably and that he was entitled to a memorial service and headstone that acknowledged that service.
“I believe (this service) is an answer to my prayers,” Connell said. “I believe God made a way.”