Who pays for a Minnesota veteran's final wish?
With little of the solemnity of the real thing but with all the seriousness, a handful of soldiers and a group of Minneapolis cops practiced in an isolated corner of Fort Snelling National Cemetery on a recent morning. They removed a flag-draped wooden casket from a hearse, and marched it to a pavilion. They folded the flag into a perfect triangle (nothing but the field of blue and the white stars showing).
Over and over again, they presented the folded flag to a make-believe spouse sitting next to a casket with no one in it.
There were no tears and no mourners. No one would be buried. The cops were in their civilian clothes. The soldiers were wearing their informal battle dress uniforms. But the drill had its purpose: to train for a coordinated and dignified presentation for what has turned into a growth industry: military honor guard funerals.
About 4,800 Minnesota veterans are expected to want funerals with military honor guards this year, up by more than 400 from last year. That number is only expected to rise in the coming years as demographic realities hit. The average age of Korean and World War II veterans is above 70, and there are approximately 140,000 Vietnam-era veterans in Minnesota alone.
Despite the steady rise in demand, money for honor guards from veteran service organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars has been sporadically allocated in the past from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. State funding was eliminated in 2009 when state budgets were tightened. Federal funding for an Minnesota Army National Guard team has also been cut as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down. The Minnesota Guard laid off seven soldiers from its honor guard squads this year.
This year, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed $400,000 in his budget over the next two years to provide stable funding for the veteran organizations' honor guards. It's hoped the greater attention to training and the added funding will attract a younger group of veterans to perform the ceremonies.
"We just want to be able to say, 'If you have the time, we will help you with the training and help reimburse some of your expenses -- and that can be your way as a veteran to give back to all veterans,'?" said Minnesota VA Commissioner Larry Shellito.
Dayton's proposal has proceeded with little debate. The provision is part of a $124.6 million budget request for the state VA that is scheduled for a key legislative committee hearing this week.
A veteran with anything other than a dishonorable discharge is entitled to ask for military funeral honors, with a detail that includes at least two uniformed members of the armed forces who fold and present a U.S. flag and play taps.
A proper military funeral is often the only thing a veteran asks for from his service.
In Minnesota, that usually starts with a team of actual soldiers from the Army National Guard. The Guard has 17 members in teams in Moorhead, St. Cloud, Cottage Grove and Duluth, with each team performing as many as four funerals a day. "We'll never deny a veteran the honors," said Sgt. Erik Sogge, state trainer for the Minnesota Honor Guard, whose St. Cloud-based team does 75 to 80 funerals per month. "It doesn't really matter what time, what day, we'll make sure somebody is there to do the honors for them."
Increasingly, veterans' service organizations like the VFW and the American Legion are being asked to accompany the active-duty soldiers with their own unformed tribute. During the recent drill, for instance, volunteer members of the Fort Snelling Memorial Rifle Squad stopped by to practice and coordinate with the other groups. It is an effort that is both rewarding and demanding. The groups, all volunteers, receive a $50 stipend per funeral to cover expenses.
"We are there at a family's most critical juncture in their lives," said John Marshall, a Gulf War veteran and captain of the Duluth Honor Guard, a 68-member organization made up of volunteers from the American Legion, VFW and Sons of the American Legion. "To serve them is our honor and to remember their loved one's service to the country is huge. That is not something you mess around with."
Before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, veterans from service organizations might show up and attempt to do a service with no standard protocol. Over the past decade, though, the desire of many veterans to have a proper military funeral have heightened the demand for standards, but with little funding to support training.
State veteran officials say they want it done right, and the same way each time, no matter the organization.
"I'm committed to not going back to the old days," said Shellito, the VA commissioner.
The Duluth Honor Guard is the first in the state to be certified by the Minnesota Guard for adhering to a strict standard operating procedure: rifle salute, taps and presentation of the flag. The team, usually made up of 12 members, can do up to six funerals a day, and the effort can be time-consuming and costly. The organization recently spent $2,000 retrofitting its rifles, and a typical uniform of pants and blouse can cost $800 to $1,000.
During the recent training with the Minneapolis police and Minnesota Guard teams, the Fort Snelling Memorial Rifle Squad quickly arrived on the scene in their bus. Well-practiced, the volunteers, who average in their 70s, hustled out to their assigned places, some standing more steadily than the others. Each day the group has a different squad that can do up to 17 funerals a day, with one completed every 15 minutes. On this day, 10 funerals were scheduled.
"World War II is just about finishing up now and we're getting Korea and Vietnam and some of the newer veterans," said Leo Noe, a Korean War veteran and the day's squad leader. "When you get a real young one, it's a good-sized funeral. When you get an old guy, it's a little smaller and it's probably cremated."
During the practice, seven men lifted their rifles and shot three times, the casings from the blanks tingling on the pavement. Another volunteer played taps. Arthritic backs bent down to pick up the spent casings and the volunteers dutifully made their way back to their spots on the bus.
And then they were gone as quickly as they had arrived. Another funeral awaited.