A flag for a friend who sacrificed for his country

By Chris Day

Published July 20, 2020

Rupert Heard
Rupert Heard (Chris Day/WUFT)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Rupert Heard’s name is rather appropriate. That is, most people can hear him before they see him. His laugh, thundering and infectious, echoes through Dignity Village.

Heard, 57, occupies a tent atop a small hill. He doesn’t have many possessions, but cherishes an American flag in his tent. It brings back memories.

Until about a year ago, Heard shared the hill with Michael Burnette, whose tent was pitched just a few yards away.

This work is a collaboration among the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service, the University of Oregon, Stanford University, Arizona State University, the University of Arkansas, Boston University and the University of Florida.

Burnette fought in Vietnam. Heard describes him as a war hero, telling stories of dangerous rescues and low drops out of helicopters with no parachute — “hero stuff.” People in the camp called him “The Bear,” though by the time Heard met him, he was ailing and wheelchair-bound.

But Burnette had his monthly veteran’s benefit check of $1,074 — a lot of money in a homeless encampment. 

Heard befriended Burnette after seeing him smoke cigarette butts he found on the ground. This bothered Heard, who said he believed a veteran deserved, at the very least, new cigarettes. And there was no reason with his benefit check that Burnette shouldn’t be able to afford them.

Heard discovered Burnette had been trusting his checks to others in the camp to manage for him and make grocery runs. But they were taking advantage of Burnette, wasting the money on liquor. It always ran out early in the month.

“No man that gave his all for his country should have to live like that.”
— Rupert Heard

Heard put a stop to all that by taking over Burnette’s finances.

“No man that gave his all for his country should have to live like that,” Heard says. “I saw to it that didn’t happen anymore.” 

Heard budgeted the check to make sure it lasted the month, bought food and fresh tobacco for the veteran. He took clippers to Burnette’s hair and beard, joking that he looked like Santa Claus. A tight friendship grew.

Heard would cook for them and make what he called “cowboy coffee” over the campfire or grill. 

“Here’s to Gainesville and the rest of the world,” they would say every morning, raising their coffees in a toast.

Burnette lived in a one-bedroom apartment for a time, but told Heard he didn’t like it. He was lonely, watching TV or listening to the radio all day.

“How much of that can you take?” he asked Heard.

Burnette eventually returned to Dignity Village, where people knew his name and he could pass the time with conversation. Where he could share a cup of coffee with Heard.

Then, one day last year, Heard was inside one of the dorms on the GRACE Marketplace campus when someone said, “Rupert, you’ve got to come out to your camp.”

Heard found Burnette’s body lying on the hill. Unattended. His body was dragged to the front of the hill where attempts to resuscitate him failed. Burnette died from natural causes.

Heard took down an American flag from a flagpole on the hill and draped it over Burnette’s body. 

The coroner later covered Burnette with a new flag, and returned the old one to Heard. He’s kept it safe in his tent ever since. He holds the flag gently in his hand and brushes away dust as he remembers Burnette. 

Homeless - Rupert
Rupert Heard in Dignity Village. (Chris Day/WUFT)

“That flag can never touch the ground,” Heard says, his throat catching and his eyes pooling with tears. “That was a dear friend of mine.”

Heard gave away all his tobacco two months after Burnette died. He couldn’t do it anymore. The cigarettes he rolled reminded him too much of his friend.

Now, it’s just Heard. Still going strong, if not a bit lonelier. 

“Cheers to you, Mike,” he says, lifting his cup and eyes to the sky.