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Honor Guard volunteers 'privileged' to attend veterans' funerals

ANDERSON, Ind. — The Indianapolis 500, barbecues and summer on the horizon has become synonymous with Memorial Day weekend. But even with all the fun, many families will take time to remember lost loved ones on Monday.

It’s a holiday of honor that’s particularly important to families of fallen military members. Some see Memorial Day as part of the grieving process, which often starts at the funeral.

To help initiate families into the first part of grief, VFW Post 266 Honor Guard volunteers go to veterans’ funerals and perform military rites.

“For me, it’s a privilege to do it,” Gail Layman, a Post 266 caller, said. “I see it as helping families have closure with the loss of that loved one.”

Layman, a Vietnam veteran, is just one of 10 Post 266 volunteers who regularly attend funerals to go through the military ceremony.

Fellow Vietnam veteran Ron Summers said the honor guard attends funerals almost daily, oftentimes going to multiple in a day.

“They deserve it,” he said. “They earned it.”

Gary Benefiel, who served in the Navy from 1974 to 1978, said the group attended about 120 funerals last year, although Summers said he thinks it was closer to 190.

With so many funerals to attend, volunteer David Cortier said it takes up a lot of free time. Cortier, who was in the Army National Guard for two years and spent eight years in the Navy during the Cold War, said he’s done everything from Color Guard to holding the flag to being the bugler.

He said it often feels like a juggling act.

“It’s hard to commit yourself because you’re trying to take care of your family, but this is such a mission for us, it’s like we have to be there,” Cortier said.

Summers said that’s part of the reason his wife, Mary Summers, volunteers now as a bugler. Most of the volunteers have served in the military or have close relatives who served.

The weather is warming up now, but outside conditions can sometimes be harsh, especially during the winter. Summers said it was 20 degrees below zero during a funeral this winter. The minister initially said the Honor Guard could go through its ceremony first but changed his mind.

“We were so frozen we were lucky to shoot,” he said.

Another time, his wife’s lips were nearly frozen to the bugle as she played taps.

The demand and weather conditions can make it difficult to continue. It sometimes reminds them of when they were in the service.

“It’s just like when we were in the military,” Layman said. “We did a lot of complaining, but we went ahead and did it anyway.”

It’s a lot of work, but none of them question why they do it.

“There’s no better honor for us than to honor someone who has recently died who has served this country,” Cortier said, pausing. “And it’s not the easiest thing to do.”

Cortier said when taps is blown, the family often “absolutely loses it.”

“You have to go through a whole routine, and your voice is breaking up and you’re looking up at them crying,” he said. “It’s very hard to not get a little emotionally involved.”

But the families are why they do it.

Layman said he’s realized over the years that the ceremony is more for the families than the soldiers. There’s grieving and loss, but it’s all part of life.

He remembered when his father died, the minister actually messed up during the funeral. Instead of referring to his father by his name, Norman, he called him Herald throughout the eulogy.

“My brother and I looked at each other about the same time and said, ‘Are we at the right funeral?’” Layman said.

It was a comedic release during what was supposed to be a sad ceremony, but it helps remind him that funerals are for those left behind and it’s OK if not everything goes according to plan.

Summers said they get thanked daily and people often ask to get pictures of them.

It’s just one reason why all of them feel it’s worth the commitment, and none of them plan on quitting anytime soon.

“The only thing that’s going to stop me is if I can’t stand up or if I can’t pick that rifle up,” Cortier said. “Until that time, I’ll continue to do it.”

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