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National Guard, local veterans pay final respects to departed soldiers

By Hugh Fisher
For the Salisbury Post
Memorial Day has a deep, personal meaning for tens of thousands of
Americans who today will honor friends and family members ó spouses,
relatives, sons and daughters ó who have served their country in the
armed forces.
Today, at ceremonies in Salisbury and all across the United States,
veterans’ organizations and members of the military will pay tribute to
those who served and who have now passed away.
And yet those feelings of honor and respect that this day represents
are a part of the daily lives of a select group of men and women who
volunteer to honor fallen veterans.
Some are members of the N.C. National Guard who volunteer for
additional duty, leaving home to train and then to travel to cities
like Salisbury, where they perform military funerals.
Other are retired and discharged soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines
who, as members of veterans organizations, take time out of their daily
lives to honor their fallen brothers and sisters.
According to one government estimate, some 1,800 military veterans die
each day in the United States. The vast majority are veterans of World
War II; thousands are laid to rest every week.
On Memorial Day and every day, the task of laying those veterans to
rest is taken up by those who volunteer for the difficult task of
honoring the memory of a departed service member while comforting the
family left behind.
The well-known image of a military funeral includes the three rifle
volleys, the folding of the flag and a bugler playing “Taps.”
In the past, those honors were generally available only to those who
had retired from the military with 20 or more years of service. So
members of veterans’ service organizations, including the American
Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans, filled
the gap.
Members of local chapters from those three organizations make up the
Rowan County Honor Guard. They performed the traditional honors at
veterans’ funerals, firing the rifle volleys and presenting the U.S.
flag provided by the government.
Salisbury resident Don Webb is a former U.S. Army staff sergeant.
Trained as a combat medic, he served in Korea and Vietnam and during
Operation Desert Storm. Today, he is a member of VFW Post 3006 in
Salisbury and is the current head of the Rowan County Honor Guard.
He is honored by the job he performs. “We’re paying the last respects
to a soldier who protected his country. As far as I’m concerned, that’s
the highest respect anyone can give to a deceased veteran,” Webb said.
Lewis Reid, of Kannapolis,, has been a member of Disabled American
Veterans for 35 years. He’s been volunteering with the honor guard at
military funerals since 1990.
He often speaks at these funerals, as he did recently at the service
for Army veteran Arnold Brooks, of Asheboro, who was laid to rest at
National Cemetery in Salisbury.
“Another veteran has been called to the High Command,” Reid said as the
wind whipped the United States and U.S. Army flags nearby. “He has gone
to meet the greatest commander of all. “We come to honor the memory of
one who offered his life in service of his country. … Because of him,
our lives are free and our nation is blessed.”
For Reid, these words of comfort are not spoken lightly. “I feel like
this man was my brother,” he said, “and I want to honor that one who
served his country.”
As a specialist in the Army, Reid served in Korea and at air bases in
Alaska. Today, at age 73, he sees his work with the honor guard as a
way of giving back to his fellow veterans.
But age is increasingly a factor. In recent weeks, one longtime Honor
Guard member has passed away; others have medical problems that make it
difficult to attend. Those who are in good health aren’t getting any
younger: Lewis Reid is 73, while Webb is 70.
“The writing’s on the wall, if you know what I’m saying,” Webb said.
Nationally, the membership of these veterans’ organizations has
declined just as the number of veterans passing away has risen.
Those facts prompted action on the part of the U.S. government. In
January 2000, federal laws were changed to authorize military honors
for all eligible veterans.
That includes those who received an honorable discharge from the Army,
Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard or Merchant Marine.
The honors guaranteed to all qualified veterans include the folding and
presentation of a U.S. flag and the playing of “Taps” ó the ceremonies
that honor the life and service of those who risked their lives in
service to their nation.
The task of providing those honors can be difficult. With hundreds of
funerals each week across North Carolina, both active duty troops from
Fort Bragg and volunteers from the National Guard work alongside the
veterans’ organizations to pay respects to the fallen.
Sgt. Christopher Jones, of Greensboro, is a soldier in the Army
National Guard. After service which included a tour in Afghanistan in
2003, he volunteered to begin performing military funerals in September
2006. Today, as one of three regional coordinators for the N.C.
National Guard’s Military Funeral Honors Program, he leads teams of
soldiers that perform military funerals across the Piedmont.
Many of those are held at Salisbury National Cemetery, on the grounds
of the Veterans Administration Medical Center.
It is an intense job. On some days, Jones and his team have performed
as many as six funerals in Salisbury.
Only, to them, they aren’t just “funerals” or “services.” They are
referred to as “missions,” and they are handled with the utmost
respect.
“This is a volunteer duty,” Jones said. “National Guard soldiers who
want to perform military funeral honors must request to do so, and then
they must be chosen for the job.”
That’s because it takes skill and expertise to execute the ceremonies
with precision.
Also, funeral honors is one of the most emotionally difficult jobs
imaginable. Jones and Specialist Hannah Eckerd have performed funerals
for veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and have also taken
part in ceremonies for North Carolina soldiers killed in Iraq.
Whether the veteran was young or old ó whether he or she left the
service five years ago or 50 ó the pain is still the same for families,
and the honors just as important.
“I’m often told that it means a lot to families to have representation
from the active military,” Jones said.
“It adds to the sense of family … almost as if to say, the military has
never forgotten the debt they owe to this individual soldier.”
The repayment of that debt takes an emotional toll on those who provide
it.
Jones said his most difficult mission was one where recipient of the
flag was the veteran’s 10-year-old son. Specialist Hannah Eckerd, of
Boone, a member of Jones’ National Guard unit, said she volunteered for
funeral honors as a way to find extra work during school. She is a
student at Appalachian State University.
Eckerd recalled a funeral where the young daughter of a veteran at
first seemed calm and composed.
“But then, when they started to lower the casket, she started
screaming,” Eckerd said.
Even now, she has trouble finding words to describe that experience.
“I expected to see her letter (of resignation) on my desk the next
day,” Jones said.
Another member of Jones’ team is Carl Schlager, a disabled Air Force
veteran who left the service in 1989 after suffering back and leg
injuries.
Today, working as a bugler through the National Guard bureau, he plays
“Taps” at military funerals.
While he admits it isn’t easy, Schlager tries to learn some facts about
each veteran for whom he plays, before or after the service. “I want to
know who I’m playing for,” Schlager said. That way, there’s no risk of
the job becoming impersonal.
On the contrary, he is often overcome by emotion at soldiers’ funerals.
“When I play ‘Taps,’ I pick one family member … and play it especially
for him or her,” Schlager said.
For more information on military funeral honors available to veterans
through the North Carolina National Guard, go to
www.nc.ngb.army.mil/Military%20Honors/default.asp.
Contact Hugh Fisher at 704-797-4245 or hfisher@salisburypost.com.
 

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