- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2002

The two Fort Belvoir soldiers performed as if they had undergone long, disciplined training, as they stood at attention at each end of the silver-colored casket.
They solemnly lifted the flag off the coffin. While Sgt. Samson Nwosu held the end with the stars, Spc. Richard Perkins slowly folded the red-and-white stripes in a triangle until reaching the other end so that only the white stars over the blue background could be seen.
Sgt. Perkins, still at attention, clicked his heels, turned, strode to a nearby row of seated family members and presented the triangular bundle to the next of kin of World War II veteran James L. Queen, who died at 76.
An oft-performed ritual throughout the country, the 20-minute military funeral service in a shelter at Quantico National Cemetery on a drizzly weekday nonetheless appeared to retain some spontaneity.
Sgt. Nwosu, a 10-year veteran, and Spc. Perkins, an eight-year veteran, had practiced folding the flag just a few minutes earlier in the cemetery administration building.
There was no firing squad for a gun salute, nor was there a bugler. There was just a recording of taps on a compact disc player.A bugler, a gun salute the icons that convey the dignity and respect of military honors have become rare. There are many veterans to bury, and too few service members to do it.
America's military veterans are dying at a rate of 1,849 per day, and about 1,100 of those are World War II veterans, said Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman Jo Schuda. Department of Defense officials estimate the military conducts about 1,800 military funerals a day.
Gloria B. Charity knows a thing or two about these funerals.
The Charles City, Va., widow runs the J. Leroy Charity Funeral Home, which performs about 60 funerals a year. Over the years, she has watched the faltering of the proud traditions of a country that knew how to honor its dead.
"We used to have at least the gun salute and the real taps years ago, but it just got less and less ," Mrs. Charity said. "I wish I could remember the last time we had a gun salute for a veteran."
The funeral home contacts officials with the U.S. Army at Fort Lee, Va., whenever a veteran's family requests an honor guard.
What they typically get is a few retired veterans who show up to solemnly fold a military-issue American flag and hand it to the family, while a recording of taps plays in the background.
Mrs. Charity said the fault doesn't lie with the soldiers themselves.
"They don't have a lot of people at the fort," she said.

Limited resources
"The number of veterans in the older generation who are dying is increasing," Fort Lee spokesman Jim Bolton said. "But at the same time, over the last 10 years or so, the number of military personnel soldiers in uniform has decreased."
Diminished resources are the watchwords of the armed forces brass. With a tight budget and shrinking military, they say, there's only so much that can be done.
"We do everything we can to honor veterans appropriately with the resources we have available," says Lt. Col. Ryan Yantis, an Army spokesman.
"We want to take care of soldiers and veterans, but we also have to do those things that we have to do to get our regular jobs done," he said. "We are in an era of constrained resources and personnel."
Almost 450,000 active duty and reserve component service members participated in military funeral details in 2000, Department of Defense officials said.
Any veteran is eligible for burial honors if discharged from the military honorably or medically. Full military funeral honors consisting of six pallbearers who also act as the firing party, an officer or noncommissioned officer in charge, a chaplain and a bugler are provided for active duty soldiers and Medal of Honor recipients.
Veterans are provided full honors contingent on the availability of resources. Otherwise, a flag-folding ceremony by two soldiers and presentation of the interment flag to the next of kin are the only honors.
Lt. Col. Stan Heath, a spokesman for the Army's Alexandria-based Personnel Command, said there are "obviously a limited number of soldiers on a daily basis that can be dispatched to funerals nationwide."
"In terms of resources, we're really talking about people soldiers and their availability," Col. Heath said. "In places where there are sparse active military populations like Nebraska, for example it's more difficult for a group of two soldiers to support a funeral there."
In recent interviews with The Washington Times, Army officials said the lack of full honor guard ceremonies at veterans' funerals is one of the prices being paid for the dramatic downsizing of the military during the 1990s.
Funerals held near active duty military forts and bases are better supported than those held in parts of the country where bases have shut down.
"Thirty years ago, there were military bases all over the place," one official said. "In the '90s, after winning the Cold War, the idea was 'let's downsize, let's downsize.' The physical footprint of active military on the country has decreased significantly."

Changing traditions
The cuts mean fewer honors, and a greater chance of miscues at military funerals.
Joseph L. Charity Jr., who runs the Charity Funeral Home with his mother, can recite a list of foul-ups.
There was the time when one guard, who had recently returned from an overseas assignment, folded the flag incorrectly. The honor guard went behind the church, folded it correctly and presented it to the next of kin, Mr. Charity said.
At the 1994 funeral of Thomas Taylor, a 40-year-old soldier killed in a car wreck, the flag was folded backward so only the red-and-white stripes showed. The guard refolded the flag correctly before presenting it to Mr. Taylor's mother.
"I often step in and fold the flag," said Mr. Charity, explaining that he has been in the business since he was 9.
In 1999, a cousin of the elder Mr. Charity died, and the family waited for an honor guard that never arrived. Fort Lee had accidentally sent two honor guards to another funeral.
"It was a terrible foul-up. We were so upset," Mrs. Charity said.
In Maryland, one reader complained in a letter to the Capital, an Annapolis newspaper, about the treatment meted out to her family at Crownsville Veterans Cemetery. She found out the day of her husband's funeral, when the family showed up for the service, that they could use the chapel for a mere 15 minutes. That wasn't the only problem.
"No one had bothered to inform us that we had to make our arrangements for someone to present the flag to me," she wrote. "Finally, my son walked back in and picked up a flag that was lying there (and we assumed it was for us) and brought it out to the car and handed it to me."
One of the most emotional and memorable elements of a military memorial service is the sound of bugler performing taps, which began during the Civil War and became standard for military funerals in 1891.
Only about 500 military musicians are capable of playing taps, but many of them have other assignments, according to Mark Ward, a senior Department of Defense spokesman on military funerals.
In the West and the Midwest, where there are fewer bases, getting buglers is especially difficult.
"They use high school boys for buglers," said Richard Hanna of Danville, Iowa, who served in Korea and eventually became a captain in his 13 years of army service.
But around the country, a recording of taps has become the norm at military funerals; in 1999, the shortage of buglers prompted the department to authorize the playing of compact disc recordings at military funerals something that didn't sit well with some servicemen.
In a letter to a New Orleans newspaper, one Army veteran who had served in Korea and Vietnam wrote: "The bullets they fired were real; the shells were real; the grenades were real; the land mines were real. Why can't the bugle be real?"
Officials say one oft-unanticipated problem is paperwork: Survivors don't realize they have to find forms and provide documents.
Col. Yantis said that to have an honor guard, families need to present officials at their local military base with a DD-214 form, which proves a veteran actually was in the military.
"It's an unfortunate thing when we get calls from families who don't have a DD-214 form," he said, adding that if a veteran is nearing death, the family needs to get the form ready.
"The time to get started is before the veteran dies, not in the days of bereavement following their death," he said.

The government responds
In 1999, Congress passed a law to ensure that U.S. veterans and their families be given a proper memorial service.
Military Funeral Support Title 10, United States Code mandates that, upon a family's request, "at least two members of the funeral detail for a veteran's funeral shall be members of the armed forces, at least one of whom shall be a member of the armed force of which the veteran was a member." The law went into effect Jan. 1, 2000.
The military personnel will perform an honors ceremony that includes the folding and presenting of the U.S. flag, and the playing of taps, either by a bugler or a recording. Veterans' families receive a Memorial Certificate signed by the president, along with a grave marker.
In Maryland, lawmakers began responding to complaints about sloppy military funerals as early as 1996.
Joseph R. "Ray" Hilton who was a young Army private when wounded on Omaha Beach in 1944 died in October that year. His family and friends were told there would be an honor guard ceremony at his funeral.
What they received was "simply not a proper military honor," says Maryland Delegate George W. Owings III, a close friend of Mr. Hilton and fellow member of Maryland Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7950.
"It really set me off when he died and some three-piece [guard] showed up with a pre-folded flag and a cassette tape with taps on it," the lawmaker said in a recent interview with The Times.
"When I went to the funeral, I expected that the military was going to be there, especially when you've got a wounded veteran," Mr. Owings said. "No honor guard, no salute showed up. There was nothing but a pre-folded flag sitting there, and it just was not acceptable for the individual who we were laying to rest."
Mr. Owings began gathering letters from veterans' families upset about similar experiences. He pushed a measure the General Assembly passed unanimously in 1998 that puts the Maryland National Guard on call for military funerals when the active duty armed forces can't provide honors.
"I've received nothing but letters and calls of gratitude and appreciation since the law went into effect," Mr. Owings said.
Five other states California, Connecticut, Missouri, New Jersey and New York have honor guard systems independent of the federal law, according to Sgt. Maj. John E. Casey, deputy director of the Maryland National Guard's Honor Guard detail.
"The regular military wasn't performing their duties," Sgt. Maj. Casey said. "Our legislative people got tired of hearing all the complaints and said, 'Let's step forward and make this happen.'"

Still serving their country
The government has increasingly relied on a group that it has called on before: the veterans themselves.
Volunteer organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) provide color guards in areas far from military bases. They conduct gun salutes, taps and flag-folding.
American Legion posts throughout the United States conducted military services at 80,000 funerals last year, according to Jeff Wonder, deputy director of internal affairs for the national Legion. The Legion distributes manuals describing procedures for various military functions, including funerals.
"It's going up with the increasing number of deaths," Mr. Wonder said.
About 2,000 local posts of the VFW perform at military funerals, according to Michael Gormalley, national director for VFW citizenship, education and community service. Kansas City is national headquarters, and a local VFW goes out on a funeral assignment about once a week, he said.
In southeast Iowa, the VFW post provides color guards for funerals of veterans near Burlington and Danville.
"The VFW performs as color guard here a lot. Thank goodness for the VFW," said Walter Kester, 82, who served with the Army in Italy, France and Germany during World War II, and is now retired in Mountain Home, Ark.
The color guard of American Legion Post 86 in Rockville, designated three years ago as the color guard for the national Legion, performs at a funeral about once a month or every other month, said Adjutant Ron Sumner, 63. As many as 10 members may be required for a full honors service, he added.
But even those groups are becoming short-handed because many volunteers are aging World War II veterans who are close to dying.
"So many that would do it are in their 70s and 80s," said Mr. Wonder.
Leaders anticipate new members of the Legion, VFW and other organizations will continue the services provided by World War II veterans, and have implemented a program to help them.
Under the Authorized Provider Partnership Program, military services supply funeral training for veterans and volunteer members of veterans service organizations, said Lt. Col. James P. Cassella, spokesman for the Department of Defense.
Written instructions and 20-minute videos for ceremonies are provided, and practice or rehearsals are conducted as part of the training, which includes folding the flag, presenting the flag and playing taps. Honor guards also learn how to take positions around the casket and how to fire a 21-gun salute.
Volunteers may wear dignified and presentable uniforms of their organizations or civilian suits with ties, Col. Cassella said.

'It's our duty'
The Charity Funeral Home recently oversaw a military funeral that was probably like most services today. It was error-free, modestly dignified, with a three-man honor guard and a boom box.
They were burying Robert Andrew Brown, 83, who served from 1944 to 1946. A lifetime resident of Charles City, he had worked 54 years as a chef at the College of William and Mary and was a charter member of American Legion Post 61.
The Fort Lee guard stood at parade rest at the hearse, as Mr. Brown's family, Legion honorary pallbearers, floral bearers and Buck Hill Hunt Club pallbearers walked from the New Vine Baptist Church to the small cemetery behind it.
Spc. Finn Staber stayed with the boom box hidden behind a nearby tombstone, while Sgt. Boynt Williams and Spc. Lamont Tankard marched to the hearse and stood in salute, as pallbearers removed the flag-draped steel casket and placed it on top of the concrete vault.
Vine Baptist pastor Burrell A. Smith Jr. spoke briefly. Then, Sgt. Williams marched slowly to the head of the casket, and Spc. Tankard marched to the other end. They stood at attention and held their salutes as Spc. Staber pushed the button on the boom box.
When taps ended, the other guards folded and presented the flag to Mr. Brown's family.
The soldiers said they are one of seven honor guards at Fort Lee that rotate three-day shifts, performing two or three funerals each day. On occasion, Sgt. Williams said, they have performed five services during a workday, beginning 8 a.m. and ending 8 p.m.
"We do this quite often," said Sgt. Williams, a nine-year veteran. "It's our duty. It's appropriate, what we do."


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