Vietnam veteran Richard Kowalker just wants to serve others, and many in the community are helping him to do it in style.
A former Marine, Kowalker has attended more than 700 veteran funerals with his horse, Melody.
Now a group of supporters have stepped in to raise funds to provide the veteran with a brand new horse trailer, valued at more than $8,000.
The night before a veteran’s funeral that Kowalker planned to attend in Wethersfield, he discovered that his horse trailer was totalled, damaged beyond repair. Unable to drive Melody to the service 15 miles away, Kowalker just hit the road and started hoofing it.
He gave them his word he’d be there, Kowalker said.
Traveling with a borrowed horse, Sassy, Kowalker rode Melody and ponied Sassy, to serve as a riderless horse, with an empty saddle and boots set backward in the stirrups, a traditional honor for fallen soldiers.
Kowalker is certified by the Connecticut National Guard to provide the service at funerals. It’s one of the highest honors bestowed upon a military veteran.
“It symbolizes a fallen hero,” Kowalker said. Along the way, Kowalker was escorted by several police departments including Middlefield, Cromwell, Rocky Hill and Wethersfield, according to a friend.
Ken Yavis, who works at the New York Pickle Deli on Route 3 in Rocky Hill, spotted them near his restaurant June 20, and decided to go home and get his own horse trailer to assist them with their journey, Kowalker said.
“A call went out on social media to assist Richard and his horses with a ride home,” said a youcaring.com website created to raised the more than $4,000.
That represents half the costs of the new $8,000 horse trailer soon to be customized with patriotic art and delivered to Kowalker.
“Offers for assistance poured in to help this special man on his selfless mission,” the friend wrote.
First, Kowalker got an offer to rent a used horse trailer at Trailer Depot, a local dealer in Northford. Owner Mike Duhamel even offered to contribute $750 toward its $2,500 list price.
“I think what he does is awesome,” said Duhamel. “Military personnel are very important. They’ve done much more for us than we can ever do for them.”
Kowalker’s fundraiser still needs donations to cover the trailer purchase as well as $750 for his horse’s grain and bedding. Check out his You Caring page at http://bit.ly/1fCUX4R.
Though the story seemed already to have a happy ending, it was about to get upgraded.
Kowalker’s supporters had a fancier trailer in mind. One with features like a dressing room where Kowalker can change into his dress blues.
“This is very humbling, and it gets embarrassing at times,” Kowalker said Monday. “With the horses, I am there for decoration only.”
The riderless horse
His horse, Melody, 30, and the borrowed one, Sassy, 21, are Morgans of the same color. Using the borrowed horse, Kowalker, 66, can ride along in funerals and parades, ponying the riderless horse instead of walking, he said.
He will soon visit the Connecticut State Police firing range to gauge Sassy’s reaction to loud gunfire.
At military funerals, four people fire a three-round volley, before the bugler plays “Taps,” and two U.S. Marines fold and present the American Flag to the family, Kowalker said.
With the online fundraiser past the $4,000 mark and Hoffman Auto Group committed to matching those funds, Kowalker now has a new trailer on the way.
“I was taken back with the story about veteran Kowalker and the honor he bestows on fallen veterans,” said Bradley Hoffman, co-chairman of the Hoffman Auto Group. “Our servicemen and women deserve our respect and recognition, which Mr. Kowalker has impressively demonstrated over the years.”
Hoffman Auto heard about the cause from Renee DiNino, an on-air host on The River 105.9-FM.
“I called my Community Access sponsors Hoffman Auto Group they responded within 24 hours to come up with the rest of the money for the trailer,” said DiNino, director of Community Affairs & Programming for iHeartMedia.
“By the time I get a haircut and gas, I’m out already,” said Kowalker, still in the dark this week about most details related to the new trailer, all organized by supporters.
He heard the trailer was towed to a Newington auto body shop to undergo a patriotic transformation, adding colorful art to the outside.
“It’s supposed to be registered today,” said Kowalker on Monday. He expects to receive the trailer, and more media fanfare, sometime early in July, though the date and time are not yet known.