One by one, veterans from all over Tennessee and beyond walked down the chapel aisle to salute Jim O’Neill at his casket, as family members and friends of the Dickson VFW post commander wept and comforted each other.
Several of the veterans took a turn at the podium to praise O’Neill, a two-time Purple Heart recipient for Vietnam War service in the Army. He died Dec. 11 at age 75 after contracting the coronavirus, according to his wife, Gail.
The Dec. 17 funeral service was held in the chapel of Spann Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Dickson. Among the speakers was John Furgess of Bellevue, who was commander-in-chief of the VFW in 2004-05.
“He was a beautiful man, and we should all remember him as such,” Furgess said. “I know I will. It was my privilege to know him and love him like a brother.”
O’Neill, who will be interred next week at Middle Tennessee Veterans Cemetery in Nashville, was one of just three commanders of the Dickson VFW post to ever serve as a state commander for the organization, Furgess said.
Carl Kaelin of Leitchfield, Ky., knew O’Neill for decades through the VFW.
“Today’s a sad day for Tennessee,” Kaelin said at the service. “You can’t replace him. You’re not going to get someone else to do the job he did.”
In the midst of the grief, family members, veterans and others found a silver lining -- the opportunity to mourn together. In the spring, funeral homes were limiting services to immediate family members, in accordance with CDC guidance on COVID-19.
Not only did many people gather for visitation and the funeral for O’Neill, they held a celebration-of-life event in his honor at the VFW post afterward, which included more tributes and a banquet.
O’Neill’s wife and some veterans interviewed at the visitation and at the Post 4641 event said they had caught the coronavirus at some point and recovered.
Some said the risk needs perspective. According to the Tennessee Department of Health, only 1 percent of total coronavirus infections since March in the state have resulted in deaths. Instead of staying home worried about the virus, the veterans and other O’Neill family friends chose to turn out to support for O’Neill’s family.
“He’s one of the best men I ever ran into,” said John Scott of Soddy-Daisy, who served in the Navy in the Vietnam War and is now the quartermaster for the VFW in Tennessee. “He was always there for people in need. A good man.”
Added Nikki Miller of Burns: “There are very few people I would put on a pedestal, but Jim is one of them.”
Old Guard at Fort Myer
In the Army, James Edward O’Neill did more than serve two tours of duty in Vietnam.
In September 1963, just two months after his 18th birthday, the Louisiana native was assigned to the prestigious Old Guard at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.
The assignment was spelled out in a letter, displayed at the funeral home, to O’Neill’s mother from Lt. Col. Richard Cross, the Fort Myer commander at the time.
“The Old Guard is the oldest infantry unit in the United States Army, pre-dating the Constitution in 1784,” said the letter.
It went on to cite the duties of the unit, such as conducting military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier there, and carrying out ceremonies involving the president of the United States.
“Because of its unique and highly important mission, only selected personnel are assigned to The Old Guard,” the letter continued, citing qualifications including “exemplary records of conduct and intelligence.”
“You may take pride, therefore, in your son’s being a member of The Old Guard,” the letter read.
Did not fear death
Gail O’Neill said her husband already had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and still managed to survive for three weeks in a hospital with the coronavirus.
“He was such a fighter,” she said.
Because O’Neill was an elderly person with a pre-existing respiratory condition, he knew he was at relatively high risk for death if he caught the virus, Gail said.
But he did not retreat into isolation during 2020 with that concern, she said.
“We took precautions. But we still did things,” she said. “People cannot stop living” out of fear. You cannot stop living.”