These Americans were stranded abroad when the coronavirus pandemic suddenly shut borders. Many are still trying to get home.
WASHINGTON – “Your dad is dead. To much sick.”
That blunt, misspelled message is what Charleen Shakman woke up to May 12. Her father, Charles Pyles, 77, a lifelong Kentuckian, had been in the Philippines when he grew ill with COVID-19 and succumbed to the virus.
Little did she know, those seven words would be the start of a months-long nightmare that has cost her thousands of dollars, countless tears and hours of frustrated calls and emails to the U.S. Embassy and members of Congress seeking help with a seemingly simple task: bringing her father’s remains back to the USA.
Nothing is simple in a pandemic that has sickened millions of people, slowed global travel and slashed U.S. Embassy services.
“I am desperate and heartbroken,” Shakman said in an interview Monday, crying as she talked about trying to fulfill her father’s final wishes.
The State Department has helped bring home thousands of American travelers who became stranded amid the global shutdown when the pandemic began.
The agency does not keep statistics on how many Americans have died of COVID-19 abroad. Hundreds of U.S. citizens die annually of various causes – from car accidents to drownings to homicide, an agency database shows.
Normally, when Americans die abroad, embassy officials can help with a gamut of tasks – from notifying next-of-kin to repatriating remains.
Shakman said that hasn’t happened in her father’s case. Shakman leads the family’s effort to get Pyles’ remains home, with the help of her mother, Doris Pyles, who lives in Kentucky and was not traveling with her husband.
After the initial shock of her husband’s death, Doris said she and her daughter thought about their next steps. “We’ll send money and we’ll talk to the embassy, and everything will be OK,” she thought. “Well, nothing was OK. Absolutely nothing.”
They said they feel scammed by the Philippine funeral home that took $4,000 of the family’s money – a fee that included “Repatriation of Urn/Ashes to Kentucky USA,” according to the contract she shared with USA TODAY. And they feel abandoned by the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Manila, which Shakman beseeched for assistance.
“PLEASE HELP ME BRING MY DADDY HOME!!!!” Shakman wrote in one email. “He is currently sitting in a jar on the shelf of a funeral home that I have never seen nor visited.”
Charles Pyles, right, died in the Philippines, and his family is trying to get his remains back to Kentucky. (Photo: Charleen Shakman)
The U.S. Embassy in Manila referred questions to the State Department in Washington.
A State Department official did not address Shakman’s specific case. Speaking on the condition of anonymity under the agency’s policy, the official said that because of the pandemic, “embassies may face delays due to local conditions, availability of necessary foreign government officials, and COVID-19-related logistical challenges.”
In the case of the Pyles family, the delay has lasted 106 days – and counting.
“I want his ashes. I want him back here in the United States. And I know that’s what he wants,” Doris Pyles, 75, said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “He didn’t want to stay in the Philippines in a box somewhere on a shelf.”
When the pandemic emerged, Shakman asked her dad to come back to the USA. He had become an avid traveler after retiring from his job as a civil servant at Fort Knox. He loved the Philippines, making it his home-away-from-home with a circle of friends in the expat community.
In early May, some of his friends grew concerned that they had not seen Pyles out and about. They went to his apartment and discovered he was seriously ill. Doris Pyles said her husband refused to go to the hospital and died soon after that visit.
Grief-stricken, the family began make the necessary arrangements.
“He made it very clear to all of the people he loved that what he wanted was to be cremated in the Philippines, have his ashes shipped home to my mother and have us gather at his parents’ grave” to scatter his ashes, said Shakman, a U.S. Army veteran who works for Johnson Controls in Missouri.
Until that happens, she said, “we’re all kind of in limbo and unsettled.”
It’s not clear exactly what the holdup is. A representative of the funeral home in the Philippines suggested, via email, that it had been unable to find an airline that would carry Pyles’ remains. The funeral home shared copies of text messages and emails with Shakman, in which it denies scamming the family and says it’s working with “heart and sincerity” to help return her father.
“Not all airlines is accepting cargo, not just a cargo, a CREMATED HUMAN REMAIN,” one message reads in part.
When Shakman asked the embassy for help, she was told, “Here’s the forms you need … good luck,” she said.
Shakman contacted her U.S. senators in Missouri, where she lives, and her mother wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Shakman said the lawmakers sent her and her mother form responses referring her back to the embassy.
After USA TODAY made inquiries with the offices of McConnell and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., staff from both offices contacted Shakman and vowed to help.
Once the lawmakers intervened, Shakman said, a representative from the U.S. Embassy in Manila called her, and her situation received high-level attention at the State Department.
Doris Pyles said she is ready to pick her husband’s ashes up at a moment’s notice.
“All they have to do is call and say there’s a package for Doris Pyles,” she said. “I just want him to be home.”
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