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Ingrained in Life, and Honored in Death

There is something in the blood of a military child. Growing up in a patriotic home enormously impacts a child’s world perception. For children of the Vietnam era, there is a protective pride for the grand ole’ flag.

Vietnam veterans and their supporters didn’t have community support. Still, they had each other, and their children were brought up to respect and honor the flag at all costs. Veterans of that era knew what they were fighting for, even if most of their country didn’t. They fought for each other. 

An upbringing enveloped in patriotism is what ultimately became the foundation for Veterans Funeral Care in Clearwater, Florida.

Jim Rudolph, the president and founder of Veterans Funeral Care, grew up the son of a paratrooper: J. Rudolph Sr.—“Rudy” to his friends and family. Jim had not served in the military but had been raised with an ingrained sense of duty to respect and honor military service thanks to his father. 

“My father was a paratrooper and the toughest guy in any room he walked into. He was also the life of the party. You would get to pick which Rudy you wanted to deal with. Trust me, you wanted the life of the party, Rudy. You wanted to stay on his good side because it was unpleasant to be on his bad side. Even still, I grew up idolizing him. Being a military kid, I already knew the military community as a tribe that is very possessive and protective of each other.”

Jim often quotes Admiral Bill McCraven, “It’s the military family that takes care of the veteran.” Jim believes this to be absolutely true. 

Jim and his siblings were raised to know the difference between a sergeant and a sergeant major. These continued lessons about military service were a big part of Rudolph’s upbringing and shaped him as an adult.

And so it was, by happenstance, one day when Jim was reading the employment ads in the local newspaper, that he found his dream job.

Jim had spent the summer cutting the grass of neighborhood yards and needed to secure employment during his upcoming Junior year of high school. Jim was fifteen then, and most of his friends worked at the local McDonald’s or the Tyrone Square Mall. But an ad in the paper for a grass cutter and car washer seemed right up Jim’s alley.

Little did he know the work would be at a local funeral home.

“I probably would never have gone to the interview had I known the job was at a funeral home.” Says Jim.

Undoubtedly, working at a funeral home brought a bit of stigma. But, before long, Jim’s duties had elevated to parking cars for funeral guests, which required him to wear a suit to school on workdays.

Complete with shiny black oxford shoes, a button-up shirt, and a tie, Jim began to get noticed by the girls at school. Jim’s high school years were the best of his life, and just like any high school kid, getting his driver’s license was life-changing.

“With my driver’s license, I could drive the hearse during funeral services. How many kids did you know in school who drove a hearse?” Jim asks. 

One job led to another at Reese Funeral Home in Seminole, Florida. Jim worked there until leaving for junior college. 

What impacted Jim the most during his tenure there were all the times he witnessed the families hugging and shaking the hand of Mr. Reese, owner of Reese Funeral Home, after each funeral service. Having been raised in a solid Baptist home, Jim recognized the funeral experience as a type of ministry.

“I remember paying great attention to Mr. Reese’s interactions with people. That was the part of the job that appealed to me.” 

Jim admits to craving human interaction, and the thought of working in the “back-room” jobs, such as preparing bodies or operating the crematorium, was not appealing.

“When I recognized a funeral director as an event coordinator and understood the emotional impact I could have on people, I realized I had found my way,” says Jim. 

He found that being a self-employed funeral director required owning a funeral home or working for someone else. Since well-established funeral homes in Tampa and Pinellas Counties had already been around for a hundred years, Jim didn’t see the benefit of opening the “Jim Rudolph Funeral Home.” 

“I remember the day I woke up at about two in the morning with an epiphany. I would open a funeral home for veterans. I greatly understood military language and deeply appreciated military rank and title. So, it felt like a perfect fit,” Jim says.

As he continued his research, he was astonished to find no other funeral directors in the area who specialized in military funeral service. “To this day,” he says, “I have not met another funeral director who knows that a Bronze Battle Star is different from a Bronze Star Medal.”

That is how Veterans Funeral Care was born. In 2000, Veterans Funeral Care became the first full-service funeral home in America built around the military and veteran community, focusing on assisting with Veterans’ benefits and arranging military honors.

Jim obtained a federal trademark for Veterans Funeral Care and quickly gained a reputation as a military funeral specialist. Later, Jim was invited to testify before the General Accounting Office (GAO) for Veteran Affairs, the office responsible for veteran benefits as part of the annual budget for the United States of America.

The GAO had reached out because they needed the knowledge of a funeral director with experience in the military process related to funerals. Veterans Funeral Care’s reputation proved them to be the best service for veterans by being expert in matters of veteran death benefits.

The GAO’s inquiry was focused on measurements for the budget. The GAO would budget for veterans’ benefits each year, and the allocated money would remain in the account. The office’s use of actuarial tables for calculation was the process in question. Per Jim, the estimates were correct, but the real problem was all the veterans who would die without filing a claim for the money owed. 

“Veterans are told about their end-of-life benefits when they leave the military. But, in your twenties and thirties, you’re not thinking about the National Cemetery or how much cash you will get when you die. That is my job as a funeral director. We must be knowledgeable and prepared to coach a family in mourning,” says Jim.

At Veterans Funeral Care, the staff will automatically apply for all benefits the veteran is due. Other funeral homes don’t know about veteran benefits and do not apply for them. 

“Recently, Mrs. Little died. We sent her to Arlington National Cemetery because her husband is a retired Major General, and her son-in-law is a retired Lieutenant General. To prepare for Mrs. Little’s funeral, I had five stars sitting at my table. For many funeral directors, that would be a lot of pressure, and it should be. These people have reached the apex of what it means to serve.”

Jim’s knowledge and respect for military matters in service gave him the confidence to start Veterans Funeral Care.

“I embrace the responsibility. Everyone on our staff—over 22 people—is either a veteran or the child of a veteran. With that pure love in your heart, veterans are well served,” he explains. 

Gunny

Veterans Funeral Care was honored to do Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Emery’s funeral in 2018. The family had called numerous funeral homes in the Los Angeles area, but noneof them could talk appropriately about military funerals.

The issue of a technically correct Marine Corps funeral was paramount to the family. In their frustration, they called Quantico, Marine Corps headquarters, asking for help. They were told, “We don’t even help Generals with their funerals. We will do the honors, but you must find your own funeral home.”

The Quantico office provided the Emery family and Gunny’s manager with Veterans Funeral Care’s contact information as a military funeral specialist. Not long after, Jim received a call from Gunny’s manager in Los Angeles.

After a long conversation, the Manager said, “You’ve had all the answers to our questions. Is there anybody in Los Angeles who does what you do?”

Jim told him no but promised to fly a team to Los Angeles, and everyone involved in Gunny’s funeral service would be a Marine or the son of a Marine.

“This was such an incredible honor for us,” says Jim. “We had a team in Los Angeles for a week preparing for and running the funeral for Gunny.”

The funeral in Los Angeles was for family, his church family, and Hollywood friends. Six months later, Veterans Funeral Care held the Marine Corps honors at Arlington National Cemetery. 

The Museum

Veterans Funeral Care in Clearwater offers a beautiful chapel and military-themed reception area. Still, the heart and soul of the organization is the military museum that Jim Rudolph and his staff proudly curate.

One of the museum’s most recognized pieces is the uniform worn by Navy Seal Danny Dietz. Danny was awarded the U.S. Navy’s second highest decoration, the Navy Cross, along with the Purple Heart, for his actions during the War in Afghanistan. He is also recognized as the first Seal to die in the Lone Survivor Story.

The museum also proudly displays the uniform for the 12th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, SGM Gene Overstreet (Ret.), who is on the Veterans Funeral Care Board of Directors.

“We have mementos from our time with the Emery family, including Gunny’s Challenge Coin. Most pieces in our museum are given to us by families we have served. It is a beautiful way to commemorate their loved ones,” Jim says.

The beloved museum has often been requested to be the resting place for a veteran casket or urn for final viewing ceremonies.

“We recently had a funeral for a retired Navy captain who had served with the Special Operations Command. A service was planned at MacDill to accommodate his many Special Operations Command friends and colleagues. We staged the chapel with museum pieces for him, and the family absolutely loved it,” says Jim. 

The reaction to the museum and its pieces inspires the Veterans Funeral Care team and families who continue to add pieces to the collection. The families know their mementos will be treated with dignity and respect.

“We have Vietnam vets who have come in, and they see the cot with the mosquito netting and just laugh. It brings back a bad memory that is now a good memory.” 

The whole idea is to move people emotionally.

“When your dad served 30 years in the Air Force or 26 Years in the Marine Corps., the flag presentation to your mother moves you. It is the recognition of a life’s work,” says Jim. 

In Service

Veterans Funeral Care focuses on ensuring those who have honorably and bravely served their country get every benefit they are entitled to at their time of death. The VFC Staff are trained in military culture and the unique needs of veterans and military families. The team at Veterans Funeral Care will handle every aspect of service and burial, whether in a private cemetery, a local or out-of-state national veterans cemetery, or at Arlington National Cemetery. 

To be in the presence of people who understand what it means to be a military family is ultimately the greatest gift when dealing with a loved one’s death. Inspired by his father, Jim Rudolph continues to carry the torch, ensuring families find peace in the knowledge that their loved one is honored and respected as they have earned in military service to this country. 

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Toni Hedstrom is Managing Editor and Contributing Writer for FireWatch Magazine.

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