Dedicated honor guards provide special send-off for veterans at funerals
PITTSBURGH — Most people agree that war heroes deserve a final send-off befitting their courage and service, but who can possibly travel to funeral after funeral throughout the region to give them their due?
Some local veterans dedicate their time — in some cases the equivalent of a full-time job — to do just that, providing a dignified, final goodbye to their comrades.
The veterans, most of them retirees, are paid in grateful hugs and thanks from family members and receive no special recognition. They are rarely acknowledged and often are expected to appear as if by magic at veterans' funerals.
In celebration of Memorial Day, we take a look at these faithful patriots and what drives them to continue serving the nation years — even decades — after their own military service.
The U.S. Department of Defense has its own protocol for military honors at funerals, called "Honoring Those Who Served."
Military honor guards also protect national monuments and cemeteries, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
But the number of veterans — estimated at more than 323,000 just in Western Pennsylvania — makes it impossible for the department to honor all of them.
So, it relies on veterans' service organizations, such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, to help carry out the mission. Every 18 months, the U.S. Army inspects and recertifies the volunteer corps.
How it works
The process begins at the funeral home, where funeral directors determine whether the family of the veteran wants military honors. Depending on the circumstances, veterans are entitled to military honors that include the playing of "Taps," a rifle guard, and the folding and presentation of the U.S. flag. The funeral director makes the request to the local honor guards or to the Defense Department.
If a veteran has been honorably discharged or died while on active duty, the individual qualifies for military honors at no cost as provided for in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000.
Those who died during active duty or were high-ranking officers in any branch of the military are also entitled to other benefits, such as a caisson or military flyover.
Most honor guards in the region are made up of a partnership between members of the American Legion and the VFW. The two organizations provide enough members to practically guarantee that every veteran receives the special send-off.
One of an estimated 17 honor guards in Allegheny County, the South Hills Veterans Honor Guard has officiated at more than 2,700 funerals since its inception in 2000. With more than 20 members, it isn't unusual for the guard to participate in two funerals in the same day.
The guard averages 230 funerals each year, not including parades or other community events. It's an effort between the VFW Post 6664 in Library and the American Legion Post 760 in Bethel Park.
And, this guard boasts something rarely seen among these groups: a female member.
Need more, younger members
"It takes a lot of time," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Shannon Crowley of Scott, who joined the group after seeing members perform at a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony. "I would like to see younger members."
A member of VFW Post 764 in Peters, Ms. Crowley, 53, said she feels welcomed and respected by the other members.
"We have fun," she said. "I don't take any of that sexist stuff."
The group got a grant in 2000 from the state to help purchase the $800 uniforms that members wear. The Army provided M-1 rifles to the group, along with blank ammunition. Members are seeking donations again to help defray ongoing costs.
For each funeral, the honor guards bring: one chaplain, one bugler, one squad leader, seven riflemen, three flag holders and two side guards.
"Every one of us is a volunteer from a veteran's service organization," said Chris Brown, 42, of Bethel Park, the youngest member. "We're all wartime veterans."
Mr. Brown, a Marine corporal during Desert Storm, said he's constantly looking for ways to attract younger members.
"It's going to fade out if we don't get new guys," he said.
Members clearly feel a sense of esprit de corps when they are together. They joke with each other, but when the funeral starts, the smiles vanish and the somber reason for the gathering takes hold.
"For their age, the guys have got spunky attitudes," Mr. Brown said. "They keep me young."
"We do get something back from it — a sense of pride," said Bill Babcock, coordinator of the group. "We're performing a service. The greatest appreciation comes from the families. Most of them have no idea what their loved one did in the service."
The group was organized by the late Calvin Marquis of the VFW and August "Ted" Pace, a member of the American Legion and still an honor guard member today.
Mr. Pace, 89, is a World War II veteran of the Merchant Marine and has the distinction of being one of the oldest in the group, along with fellow World War II veteran Paul Kubis, 89, of South Park.
At a recent funeral at Forest Lawn Gardens in Peters, a combined honor guard from VFW Post 191 in Canonsburg and American Legion Post 902 of Houston presided over the ceremony.
The group's organizer, Edward Snarey of Bridgeville, joined the honor guard in 1951 after his service in the Army in World War II.
The 88-year-old serves as chaplain for the group, which was at the cemetery to provide honors for the late James Simmons Sr., 84, of Cecil, a U.S. Navy seaman.
The group has more than a dozen active members, enough to provide a full military funeral for veterans.
"It's a tradition," Mr. Snarey said. "I feel good doing it."
Pride and duty
Daniel Libert of Houston said he takes a lot of pride in performing the ceremony.
"We do our duty and I think we do a good job," said Tom Fartro of Houston.
Two Naval reservists came to the funeral on behalf of the U.S. Navy to honor Mr. Simmons.
They presented the flag to the family and thanked them on behalf of the president and a "grateful nation."
"This is the only exposure most people get to the military, so we make it look good," said Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Hawn of Bethel Park, after he presented the flag to the family.
The seven riflemen each fire a volley of three shots, for a 21-gun salute, and "Taps" is broadcast through a recording inside a specially made bugle. The recording is used because finding a live bugler is extremely difficult, members said, and because the rendition of "Taps" "is the best you'll ever hear," Mr. Babcock said. It is recorded by the first bugler of the U.S. Army Band, and the "ceremonial bugle" as it's known, is approved by the Defense Department.
"We're not trying to fool anyone," Mr. Babcock said.
One of the youngest members of the group — and the only Marine — is 64-year-old Charles Moyar of Canonsburg.
The Marine sergeant earned two Purple Hearts during his service in Vietnam and was part of the "Walking Dead," the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, which lost 36 of its 42 members during one battle in 1967.
Veterans' groups in Westmoreland County also have combined to form honor guards, including the American Legion Post 344 and VFW Post 8240, both from Jeannette.
The group has about 20 members, but organizers would like to see that number grow.
"We're always looking for members," said Arthur "Sonny" Blasco, 68, of Harrison City, chairman of the group. "I'd like to have enough members so that we could do two funerals at the same time."
Mr. Blasco said his group also visits the funeral home on the night before the burial for a special ceremony.
Active-duty or retired veterans or reservists who were discharged honorably are eligible to be interred at no cost at the Cemetery of the Alleghenies, along with dependent family members. Since it opened in August 2005, the 292-acre national cemetery in Cecil has been the final resting place for 7,280 veterans and their families. The cemetery inters an average of 25-30 veterans each week.
It will host a Memorial Day ceremony open to the public at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Cemetery director Ronald M. Hestdalen said he sees many of the same faces during the thousands of funerals that have been held during the past eight years at the cemetery. It doesn't matter whether it's zero degrees or the wind is howling on the barren hilltop where the cemetery is located. They come to show their respect, he said.
"It takes somebody who has dedication and commitment to veterans and their service to our nation," he said of the volunteer honor guards. "A lot of our veteran service organizations do this on their own time and with their own funds."
But those who served deserve at least that much, volunteers say.
"It's the last request of a veteran and we try to honor that," said Kenneth Ward, 65, a Vietnam War veteran from Chartiers who belongs to the Canonsburg/Houston honor guard. "They deserve that."
For more details about eligibility, funeral services or how to obtain military records: www.cem.va.gov.