- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2000

Staff Sgt. Ramon E. Martinez and Sgt. Sean Reeves stood at attention beneath a cold gray sky Thursday as the casket of a World War II veteran was lowered into the ground.

The midday service was the first of two funerals the soldiers would attend Thursday, and the latest of dozens this year. Sgt. Martinez and Sgt. Reeves are members of the Army's Fort Myer Old Guard, an Arlington, Va.-based unit that provides funeral services for the families of veterans.

With more World War II veterans dying and a new federal law requiring the armed services to provide military honors at veterans' funerals, honor guards are busier than ever.

"We were already meeting the minimum [level of service now required by law]… . There is an increase, but it's nothing we can't handle," said Capt. John Lamme, chief of casualty and mortuary affairs at Fort Myer.

"It is always an honor to conduct funeral services, because it's the golden rule," the captain said. "I say to the soldiers: 'Guys, if it were your husband or wife how would you want it to be?' "

Members of the Old Guard perform services for funerals in the District of Columbia, Arlington, Fairfax, Va., and Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland.

"Being in the Old Guard, we hold ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to performing funerals… . It takes a lot of composure to stand there while families are crying," said Sgt. Martinez, 25.

There are more than 26 million aging American veterans, and the Department of Veterans Affairs predicts that more than 600,000 will die each year over the next decade.

The new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, requires the services to provide two uniformed representatives at least one from the deceased's military branch to fold and present the American flag to the next of kin. It also calls for taps to be played, by either a bugler or a high-quality CD recording.

The new requirements have the Old Guard unit busier than usual.

The four-man team is averaging about 60 ceremonies a month, according to Sgt. Martinez.

That's up dramatically from last winter, he said.

Rich Lane, a public affairs officer for Maryland's Fort Meade, a smaller base, said that base has conducted close to 99 funerals since January, nearly 40 more than last year an increase of 68 percent.

A full honors ceremony is given to retirees, people who die on active duty and Medal of Honor winners. The ceremony involves six pallbearers who also take part in a firing party; a seven-person rifle team firing a three-round volley of 21 shots; a flag folding and presentation; and taps.

Any soldier who meets the criteria of being honorably discharged after six months is eligible to receive the minimum level of service.

On Thursday, at Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Md., the two soldiers from Fort Myer arrived early and double checked their preparations.

Despite their best efforts, the portable stereo faltered during taps. Sgt. Martinez and Sgt. Reeves, 24, remained composed and focused, delivering a solemn salute, greeting the funeral procession and stepping in unison to the grave site.

At the end of the ceremony, the two men folded the U.S. flag draping the coffin and presented it to a grieving son.

"It's an unwritten rule, you try not to make eye contact with families until you give them the flag," said Sgt. Martinez. "This is our job, we can't get emotionally attached."

Sgt. Martinez said a couple of times he has presented the flag to family members or friends who do not want to take the flag.

"I think it's because they are so emotional, they can't get over the fact that the soldier is gone," he said.

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