The 13 military veterans served during World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War. Most of them returned home from those wars to civilian life to marry, raise families, work hard and retire … but they never forgot.
Uncle Sam called some to war. Some went willingly, but draftees or enlistees, they are now all volunteers — not so much for their nation, they met that obligation in their youth.
The elderly men still wear uniforms to honor military brethren felled by time because no soldier, sailor, airman or Marine should be left behind on the battlefield.
“To me, it’s an obligation,” 70-year-old Roy Smith said. “We are all brothers and when my brother dies, I want to do what I can for his family. If I can help just a little bit, it’s been worth the time. It’s an obligation to help.”
Smith has been fulfilling that obligation since 1998.
“We buy our own uniforms and with the guys standing for a funeral for up to three hours, it’s kind of hard to ask him to shell out of his own pocket, so we split the cost through donations, pancake breakfasts like this one and we put on dinners so we can keep ourselves going,” Smith said.
The honor guard served pancakes, waffles, bacon and coffee Saturday morning at the VFW Post 2598 as a fundraiser to help buy gas, uniforms and the group hopes to someday replace the old 1995 Dodge van they drive from cemetery to cemetery.
“That’s all we could afford. It had no seats in the back,” Carl Zucher said. “It was big enough to be a bus, but it had no seats in the back.
“Our first few trips were with folding chairs in the back of the van so we could all travel together. We finally found some seats for it and got the top painted, because it was so rusty and it’s working pretty well for us. The brakes are bad and the air conditioning doesn’t work. There are a number of things, but that’s the reason we need another van.”
There are 13 members in the unit. A burial requires seven members of the rifle squad to fire a 21-gun salute, one to call commands and a bugler to play “Taps.” Of the 13, only 11 are available.
“One, his wife is very sick and he can’t go,” Smith said. “Another one has spurs on his spine and his legs won’t hold him, so he can’t go. It takes nine of us and if something happens one man can’t make it, it makes it hard.”
As the detail ages, Smith would like to see younger veterans donate their time.
While there is no hard work involved, there is idle time waiting for funeral processions to arrive. Sometimes they wait 20 minutes and sometimes it is an hour and 20 minutes.
“That’s all it’s going to cost them, because like I say, we try to get donations to cover expenses if he can just donate three hours. There is no hard work in it,” he said.
“We have spent a lot time in the graveyard just setting there, but to see the look on the family’s face and to know the ones you served with are being honored…. The government is trying to stop that: period, unless you’re high ranking, you don’t need one and that’s wrong.”
In addition to the rifle salute and “Taps,” they sometimes present flags to family members though the National Guard has taken on that responsibility. When the honor guard is called upon to perform that part of the service, they must lay down their rifles, walk to the casket, fold the flag and present it to the family. Because of their ages, their movements are not as crisp or precise as the National Guardsmen.
“But, you don’t know what it’s like to hand that lady the flag. I can’t look her in the eye. I’ve got to look at her chin or the top of her forehead. But then when they get up and hug you, it’s worth it ... it’s worth it.”
Smith does not know exactly how many funerals the honor guard has participated in this year. There were 99 one year, but there were two last week and another one today.
“We’ve done one at one gravesite, walked across the graveyard for another one and had a call that they needed us at another graveyard. We’ve had three in one day,” he said. “They’ve asked for a fourth and we couldn’t do it.”
World War II veterans Carl Zucher and Pinky Blackburn are the oldest, followed by Korean War veteran and former Prisoner of War Bill Norwood. Vietnam veteran Wayne Stovall is the youngest member with Oscar Kelly close behind.