Full honors: Georgia American Legion members provide funeral ceremonies for veterans
ALBANY, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, about 300,000 remain with us, and their numbers are dwindling by about 300 each day.
Millions more have served in the U.S. military since that time, and when one of them dies in southwest Georgia — whether a combat veteran who served overseas from Korea to Afghanistan, or a service member whose time was spent stateside — the Tri County Memorial Team is available to provide final military honors.
"We do it to honor our brothers," Ronald Langston, a Vietnam combat veteran who is among the 30 or so who serve on the team, said.
The team consists of members of American Legion Posts 30 in Albany, 182 in Leesburg and 335 in Sylvester. Faced with the same dwindling of their ranks as veterans inevitably die, the three posts combined forces to provide sufficient members to provide services at funerals.
While the U.S. military services in the past did a good job of staffing funerals with personnel to fold flags, provide a gun salute and play Taps, that is not always the case these days, especially for the average veteran, team members said.
They recounted one funeral in Bainbridge for a member of a special forces unit attended by five high-ranking generals and a number of other generals and colonels.
"The special ops folks, they do the whole deal for their folks," said Denzil Harrell, commander of Post 182. "We try to do the same thing for these old farts around here."
"We feel if it's a private or a four-star general, (who served) one year or 40 years, they deserve full military honors," said team member Nick Nicholson.
In one memorable instance, the team provided honors for a sailor who died in 1921 and had been listed as missing in action. After the remains of the USS Conestoga were discovered in 2009 during a hydrographic study near San Francisco and identified a few years later, the sailor's death was confirmed.
The team does not charge for its services but does accept donations. The effort was started in the 1980s, and after a period of going somewhat inactive, has been revived in recent years.
"We will go anywhere within a hundred-mile radius or one and a half hours' (drive)," Harrell said. "We (the Legion posts) combined this. That way, most times we have enough. The most funerals we ever had in one day was four. We have been known to do two funerals at the same time."
When fully staffed, a funeral detail will include at least 10, with two on flag-folding duty, a bugler and seven with rifles to fire a 21-gun salute.
Working on a July 1 to June 31 calendar, the Tri County Memorial Team served at 65 funerals from July 1, 2019, to about the end of February 2020.
After the pandemic hit and the number of attendees at funerals was restricted, the local veterans did what they could for families by arriving before graveside services to place flags at the site and then removing them afterward. Normal operations resumed around July 2021.
Veterans' family members can make a request to the funeral home for military honors at the service, Nicholson said, and the U.S. Department of Defense will send a flag through the mail. In some instances, the military will send personnel for the funeral, but it could be a full complement or only two for the flag-folding ceremony.
The local veterans can provide a bugler and riflemen to compliment the official contingent or perform all of the elements of full honors.
While there is no monetary compensation for the team members, who often spend their own money to gas up the van and for meals eaten during lengthy trips, they are rewarded by the impact they have on the family members of deceased veterans.
Ray Humphrey, commander of Post 335, had such a moment when he was approached by a woman he did not recognize.
"I was walking through Wal-Mart in Tifton. She put her hand on me and said, 'I remember you,'" Humphrey who said he thought she must have been mistaken, said. "'You're the man who was at my daddy's funeral, and I'll always remember you.'”
Harrell remembered a little girl who hugged his legs in a store after recognizing him from her grandfather's funeral.
"You'd think after doing a thousand of them it'd get boring, but it's not," Nicholson said. "They're all different."
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