FLORENCE, S.C. — Rain, sleet or snow can’t stop the Veterans Honor Guard from giving veterans a proper burial with the dignity, honor and respect they have earned. The Guard, made up of veteran volunteers from all branches of service, honor veterans of all ranks. Active duty honor guards are few and far between with limited resources, so the Guard is attempting to fill that void and provide military funeral honors.
In 2004, Clifford Gade, then the commander of the Dusenbury chapter of the Marine Corps League in Florence, organized the Veterans Honor Guard. Since then, Veterans Honor Guard members have given their time at hundreds of funerals, administering the “Last Salute”.
It consists of the folding and presentation of the American flag, a firing volley and the playing of “Taps”. The Guard doesn’t charge for the honors and members receive no pay. Each member wears their respective branch uniform with all ranks represented, from corporal to a full-bird colonel and Navy commander.
Marine Corps veteran and honor guard member David Nelson felt compelled to join the group six years ago after attending another veteran’s funeral that did not receive a full honor guard. So, Nelson signed up and in his first year there were 28 funerals. Last year the group participated in 158.
“It really makes me feel good inside,” Nelson said. “It actually makes me feel guilty if I miss one. We only do it out of our commitment and love for our fallen brothers.”
Newly elected Veterans Honor Guard commander and Air Force veteran Don Manley had a similar experience that inspired him to join. Three years ago, his father was buried with full military honors by the Guard.
“I was just overwhelmed on that day,” Manley said of witnessing the Guard in action. “I said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”
Now, on occasion, Manley serves the position of delivering the folded flag to the next of kin at funerals.
“I tell them it’s an honor for their family member to have served, and the nation appreciates it. It’s hard for me to do every time,” he said.
U.S. Army veteran Bobby Johnson is one of the youngest members of the Guard at 54 years old. He saw a TV program featuring the group six months ago and instantly felt called to join.
“It’s an honor to serve the United States in this way. When people come up after a funeral and tell us how much it means to them, it makes me feel good. I love it,” Johnson said.
Earlier this month, Bill Galloway buried his stepfather, WWII veteran Perry L. Rogers, at Florence Memorial Gardens. The Guard was in attendance and gave full military funeral honors. Galloway said initially, he had no idea they existed.
“It’s just a great honor to have them here for my stepdad,” he said, standing at the graveside. “Every veteran deserves this. It made me feel great they wanted to honor him.”
It’s not unheard of for families of deceased veterans to schedule a funeral based on the Guard’s availability, since there are only about 15 active members. They’ve done as many as three funerals in one day, Manley said.
There have been times when the Guard was stretched thin and couldn’t fill a request. Manley said that problem can only be solved with more members.
“We’d like to have as many members as possible,” he said.
Last year members used their own money to travel around 45,000 miles in the 50-mile radius the group covers. Manley said the Guard particularly needs Army and Navy veterans to be a part of the group.
All honorably discharged veterans are eligible to be a part of the Veterans Honor Guard. For more information, visit the Florence County Veteran Affairs website at www.florencecountyveteranaffairs.com. In addition, all honorably discharged veterans are eligible to have full military funeral honors performed by the Veterans Honor Guard. For verification purposes, scheduling funeral appearances must be done through the presiding funeral home. While the Guard provides services at no cost to families of veterans, donations for mileage, uniforms and supply costs are gladly accepted by mail to: The Veterans Honor Guard, P.O. Box 12771, Florence, S.C., 29504.