Volunteer honor guard makes sure veterans get the proper final salute

legionnaires from Pulaski post make sure comrades get final salutes

jwarren@herald-leader.comJanuary 2, 2012 

When 21-year Army veteran Floyd E. Douglas was laid to rest at Mill Springs National Cemetery in Pulaski County last month, 17 men and women, all veterans wearing the uniforms of the various military services, were there to render full military honors.

They saluted the casket. They fired the traditional 21-volley rifle salute. They carefully removed the American flag from the casket, folded it in the prescribed manner, and presented it to the Douglas family, along with the shell casings from the salute. Finally, they completed the service with an emotional playing of taps.

Eric Douglas said their presence added much to his father's service.

"During the funeral, when they came up and saluted Dad's casket, I thought Dad would have loved that and would have been so proud to have that kind of recognition," Douglas said. "Having them there made me feel really good."

The men and women are all volunteer members of the honor guard from American Legion Post 38 in Somerset. The unit, organized about 15 years ago, has about 20 active members.

All veterans, they range in age from their 40s to almost 90, and they represent virtually every conflict America has fought in during the past 70 years: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq. An Afghanistan veteran is joining soon.

The men and women of the unit perform their solemn duties two to three times a week at veterans' funerals around Pulaski County and occasionally in other counties. Often, the burials are at Mill Springs, but guard members also go to other cemeteries, even small family cemeteries in rural parts of the county.

When bereaved families call, they go.

They served at 103 funerals in 2011, 108 in 2010 and 116 in 2009.

A funeral can take up to three hours of preparation, travel and work time. And guard members have done up to three funerals in a day. The work can be physically demanding, particularly for older members. But it is a labor of love, said Clarence Floyd, 79, the unit's chaplain and commander.

"Our sole purpose is to be there to honor that veteran, and to be there for the family," he said. "Honoring these fallen brothers is a our only reason for existing."

Floyd said members take particular pride in conducting military honors in the same way that it is done at Arlington National Cemetery.

"We do exactly what they would do if you were at Arlington," he said. "The only difference is they use later model rifles at Arlington, and we still use the old M1."

Usually, about 15 guard members serve at each funeral, although the number might vary depending on how many are free to attend. Those on hand divide into smaller groups for specific duties, some acting as an advance guard at the casket, others forming the rifle squad, others serving as the flag detail.

Their final act at the end of each service is the playing of taps. The unit has two buglers, one playing a traditional bugle, the other an electronic bugle. Sometimes, they combine both.

"If that doesn't get to you, there's something wrong," Floyd said. "At the end of the service, we always thank the family for letting us be a part of honoring their loved one, and wish them Godspeed."

The honor guard's services are free. It accepts no honor ariums.

Why do they do it?

"If you're a veteran, you know why we do it," Floyd said. "A veteran is like family. I always say that we do this because it's something we believe in.

"It's the least we can do to honor the person who served their country, and some gave their all to serve the country. Our fathers and grandfathers paid a great price for the freedom we enjoy. Every veteran deserves to be buried with dignity and honor."

Floyd is typical of the unit members. Drafted into the Army at 19, he served in the Korean War. He was a member of the American Legion for several years, and joined the honor guard about seven years ago after entering retirement. He has been commander for about five years.

Then, there is Ray Walters, 88, who flew 43 combat missions as a radioman-gunner on a B-24 bomber in the Pacific during World War II. Walters reckons he is the honor guard's oldest active member.

"I like being a part of it and doing something to honor the veterans," he said. "I want to keep doing it as long as I'm able to."

Cheryl Frietch, 42, who served in the Air Force and Army before retiring as a captain, joined the honor guard about three years ago and is one of two female members.

"It can get pretty emotional sometimes," she said. "At first, I didn't do the flag presentations to the families, because I wasn't sure I could keep my composure. But I have been able to overcome that. I just feel really good being part of it."

Floyd said that being a member of the honor guard is perhaps the most rewarding thing he's ever done.

"We're like a family," he said. "That's how close we all are."

And their work goes on.

The honor guard's first funeral of 2012 is scheduled for Tuesday.

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3255.

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