- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2016

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - On a sunny Friday at the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake, the wind tugged at the huge flag and whistled around the shelter where a family was soon to gather for a last goodbye.

As cars carrying the family of the deceased lined up in the long driveway, honor guard Tom Christie stood up to get ready.

He smoothed his white shirt, tucked it into his black pants and checked his military cap one last time. Together with the two other guards - his son, Thomas Christie, and John Stiles - he walked into the back room of the cemetery’s administrative building where the rifles are kept.

The flag detail from Fairchild Air Force Base was already waiting there in spotless uniforms and shoes as shiny as mirrors.

Tom Christie is a member of the Spokane Area Veterans Honor Guard, and his detail would take part in three funerals that Friday.

With 20 members in all, the Veterans Honor Guard last year participated in 242 funeral and memorial services, six flag presentations, six group meetings and two parades - one in Rockford and one in Sprague. Six members have died in recent years, and as Christie puts it, the rest of them aren’t getting any younger.

“Yes, there are 20 of us, but some are no longer active because of health issues and work,” Christie said. “We have something we go to six or seven days a week. We really need more members.”

The men are quiet as they pick up ammunition and load their rifles outside.

Bugler Dave Halverson joins the detail with a nod, and heads up to the mount where he will play taps.

As the family gathers inside, Stiles and the Christies stand in the lee of the shelter.

“It can be really cold up here when it’s snowing or raining and we have to stand outside,” the elder Christie said. But this day is warm, and big white clouds lumber across a bright blue sky.

As the family gathers inside, Christie and his fellow guardsmen go through the familiar ritual: salute, march out to the firing pad, and, as the sermon ends, simultaneously load and fire three times in a row.

Then Halverson plays taps.

Inside, the ceremony continues with the folding and presentation of the flag to the family. Christie follows, handing three shell casings to the widow.

“It’s most difficult when it’s a young family, or there are young children,” Christie said.

“That gets you right here,” he added, patting his heart.

He doesn’t know what to do as the the number of guardsmen shrinks.

“We had to do it with two people here one time,” Christie said.

Another time, three members tried to do it all: the firing of the rifles, playing of taps and folding of the flag.

Not that long ago, Christie, who keeps the schedule for everyone, worried so much about getting new members he put an ad in a paper.

“I’m not sure what else we can do,” he said.

Every branch of the military has its own honor guard, and there was a time when discharged military members automatically joined a veterans organization.

Groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars are seeing declining membership as the number of World War II and Vietnam War veterans age.

Stiles, who lives in Davenport, said that when he left the military in 1971 he couldn’t get far enough away.

“I wanted nothing to do with any of it, I just wanted out,” Stiles said. He never thought he’d put on a uniform again.

Then one day he observed a funeral and there was no one there.

“I think maybe that’s what did it,” Stiles said. “I don’t want someone to be laid to rest without anybody here.”

Stiles said many veterans don’t know the honor guard exists or what it does.

“We are all volunteers; you just have to show up,” Stiles said. “It really means something. I’m often in tears out there.”

Thomas Christie is 50 and the youngest of the three. He served in Operation Desert Storm and jokes that he’s only there because his dad makes him go.

“Honestly, it’s hard to find the time when you work,” Thomas Christie said. Serious health issues landed him on disability, so now he has more time on his hands - but he doesn’t always feel well enough to go. “I would like to see more people my age here, but I think maybe it’s different being a veteran today? I don’t know.”

Rudy Lopez, director of the Washington State Veterans Cemetery, said he’s been at the cemetery for three years and he can’t recall a funeral service that went without the honor guard.

“They are volunteers and they meet the families’ needs no matter what,” Lopez said. “They are incredibly committed.”

Lopez said the cemetery pays each honor guard a $25 stipend for a day’s service. The money comes from donations.

“They don’t charge anything,” Lopez said, “and they don’t ask for donations, but they may take them.”

On a three-funeral day like this Friday, the guards stay at the cemetery instead of making the commute back to Spokane or, in Stiles’ case, Davenport.

Their schedule allows for a break that’s just long enough for a trip to nearby Airway Heights for lunch.

Back at the cemetery, the trio get ready again.

Every ceremony is different. Sometimes the sermon is long and the shelter so full of family it’s standing room only. Other times, just one or two people come to pay their last respects. But the ritual is the same and the honor guard treats everyone with quiet respect and dignity.

“We have yet to say no to anyone,” Tom Christie said. “I hope we can continue that way.”


Information from: The Spokesman-Review, https://www.spokesman.com

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