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Veterans, children of veterans can serve on funerary honor guards

The Herald-Dispatch - 4/29/2017

Providing honor guard ceremonies at graveside has been part of military funeral services for deceased veterans since before the Civil War. Military funerals are a memorial that provides a final act of respect and dignity for those who served this country in any of the five branches of military service. For those who qualify, the services are free of any monetary obligation.

While some of the eligibility requirements for a military honor guard ceremony are outlined here, readers should know the information covered within this space is not intended to be all inclusive. Those wishing more specific details should consult area VFWs and American Legion Posts. Local funeral homes can also help, as can several websites that provide specific requirements about military funerals.

Huntington resident Mary Casella requested a military funeral for her 97 year-old mother who served in the Pacific Theater as an Army nurse during World War II. She said the honor and the dignity provided by the American Legion Honor Guard Team could never be expressed in words.

"My mother would have been so proud," Casella said. "That ceremony brought a part of her military service to life for me. That experience developed a deeper bond with a part of my mother's life that I didn't know. The Honor Guard team just can't be praised enough."

Military funerals are authorized for all veterans who were discharged under circumstances other than dishonorable. Funeral home directors usually require the deceased veteran's DD 214 to establish eligibility, which is why that document is so important to keep. Active duty or selected reserve personnel in the United States armed forces are eligible, as are former active duty or reserve that were honorably discharged who met their initial enlistment obligation. Former serviceman and women who were discharged due to a disability incurred in the line of duty are also eligible.

There are American Legion and VFW posts located in Huntington, Kenova, Guyandotte, Milton, Barboursville and Chesapeake that can provide information, direction and individual points of contact about requesting honor guard services for a deceased military veteran.

Shannon Harshbarger has been a member of Huntington's American Legion Post 16 for more than 40 years, and he's seen a lot of changes during that time. He's a proud military veteran who has been volunteering his time with the Legion's honor guard performing graveside services for more than 10 years.

"When I first joined this American Legion Post 16 we were a growing organization with a membership we'd love to have back today," Harshbarger said. "Now we are mostly a dying community of veterans searching for ways to recruit younger members. It isn't just this American Legion - membership is dwindling all over this land because of a changing lifestyle of younger veterans being discharged. The younger people are becoming less involved with their communities now because of changing lifestyles, other commitments of greater importance or a number of issues not present 50 years ago. So we do what we can for our veterans and hope for the best."

Charles Chapman of Chapman's Funeral Home said most funeral homes are fully prepared to arrange every detail of a military funeral for those that want this service.

"Once a family member provides the funeral home with the military DD 214 service record of the deceased, everything can be taken care of, even ordering the free headstone," Chapman said. "Feel free to call us and we will gladly answer any questions or concerns that you may have."

You don't have to be a veteran to be a member of the honor guard - you could be a son or daughter of a veteran. What's needed most is a desire to volunteer two or three hours a week. If your body weight is normal for your height then chances are your uniform is free. Uniforms are normally donated by National Guard units, and they do not come in extra-large sizes.

"Training for honor guard duties are given on the job," Harshbarger said. "Think of it as on-the-job training. We have members on the team with ages ranging from late 40s up to 70 years. Members usually consist of a bugler playing taps, an acting chaplain, two flag folders and a rifle team. We usually ask for a minimum of two days' notice to get our members together. As previously mentioned, right now we are in desperate need of more volunteers."

While the duties and responsibilities of an Honor Guard are not complicated, they are nonetheless founded on military tradition and protocol. Duties are solemn, sincere and respectful.

Many mistakenly call the rifle volley fired at graveside a 21-gun salute. In the military a gun is a large-caliber weapon. The three volleys most see are fired from rifles, and are not a salute, being volleys of rifle fire.

After the flag has been properly folded, it is presented to the spouse or next of kin with the following words that have changed little over the years: "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States (Army, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Navy or Air Force whichever applies) and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."

If you are interested in learning more about joining the American Legion, becoming active with the honor guard or searching for more information about scheduling a military funeral, call Shannon Harshbarger at 304-697-2794. If you are a veteran, why not stop by the American Legion on 6th Avenue and sign up?

Clyde Beal seeks out interesting stories from folks around the Tri-State. Email archie350@frontier.com.

 
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