Veterans get final farewell

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Billy Leach steps forward, spins and barks out his order.
“Squad, right face.”
A line of seven men — each with an M-1 Garand rifle — snaps to the right. They bring the weapons to their shoulders and point skyward over the mausoleum at Rowan Memorial Park.
“Fire!” the 79-year-old Leach says three times, and each order is followed by a volley from the honor guard’s seven rifles.
“Squad, left face.”
Dave Shaff, Benny Freeze, Bob Wagner, Harry Evans, Harold Andrews, Elijah Caraway and Bill Hagadorn turn left.
“Present arms,” Leach shouts to his rifle detail.
By himself, several yards to the right of the honor guard line, Dave Shaver raises a polished coronet to his lips and plays the mournful notes of “Taps.”
The other honor guard members in attendance salute, while the smattering of others assembled for Parris Benfield, a World War II Army veteran, put hands over their hearts.
Soon a detail from the N.C. National Guard removes the U.S. flag from Benfield‘s coffin, folds it and presents it to a family friend.
It’s a scene repeated in cemeteries across Rowan County during the year. In fact, the Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard participated in military graveside rites 370 times in 2010.
The previous year, the men held military rites for 480 veterans. Last month alone, they were called on 33 times, including five times in one day.
Not bad for a group, established in 1947, whose members have an average age of 72.
“A great bunch of guys,” says Sgt. Brett Miller, area supervisor for the National Guard out of Winston-Salem. ‘They come out here on their own time. They have other things to do, but this is what they want to do.”
At present, the Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard has 20 men on its roll, with about 15 staying active. They wear the hats of the veterans organizations they represent, including American Legion, the VFW, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS and 40 and 8.
The rest of their uniform includes a dark blue blazer, white shirt, gray pants, dark tie, white gloves and black shoes.
“We’re a band of brothers, to coin a phrase,” the Rev. Garey Gulledge says.
The honor guard members are veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. As you might expect, they are retired, though several of the men started in the honor guard when they still had part-time jobs.
“They’re pressed very thin, and it’s all volunteer,” says Summie Carter of Summersett Funeral Home in Salisbury. He and other funeral home directors try to express their thanks to the honor guard by sponsoring a dinner for the members twice a year, including Christmas.
Some area businesses also offer discounts to the guard members, but overall, it’s often a thankless job and a grueling commitment.
They operate on donations and a payment every now and then through the N.C. National Guard, from whom they receive their orders. Funeral homes make their first request for military rites for a veteran with the National Guard, who then contacts Rowan Honor Guard Commander Bill Craddock for assistance.
Miller says Craddock never refuses. He only asks where and when.
Shirley Rumple, wife of honor guard member Eugene Rumple, receives her instructions from Craddock and notifies honor guard members by telephone of pending burials where their services are needed.
It’s not unusual for her to be calling the men every night.
“We’re doing it for the veterans and their families,” says Leach, the most veteran of the Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard.
Leach started participating in the honor guard in June 1993, having logged 7,470 hours of volunteer service since then. He has been part of at least 1,867 ceremonies.
Leach will be 80 later this month, and his failing kidneys require him to be on dialysis every night. A pinched nerve in his neck prevents him from raising his right arm (for salutes) on its own. He employs his left arm to push the right arm up.
At times over the years, the temperatures have been so cold, Leach could hardly pull his rifle’s trigger. Other days have been so hot, they’ve challenged older honor guard members just to stay on their feet.
Then there has been the rain, snow and ice, Leach notes.
As you might expect, the honor guard members have done graveside ceremonies for some of their own.
“That’s when it’s tough,” Leach says.
Gulledge, also N.C. chaplain for the American Legion, sometimes gives the honor guard speech, which honors the veteran’s life and service to country.
There’s a standard version of the speech, which Lewis Reid and Charles Cauble give regularly — and Gulledge’s version.
Gulledge likes to explain for the families the historical meaning of the three-round volley, the playing of Taps and the folding of the flags.
The three rounds of gunfire were a battlefield signal that all the dead had been removed and treated with respect.
“Taps” was a signal to troops that the day had ended. At today’s funerals it represents a final farewell to the veterans who have died.
The folding of the flags goes back to when the war dead were loaded on caissons and covered with flags. Those flags were removed and folded before the soldiers were buried.
Gulledge has had some heart trouble and a bad back, but it doesn’t stop him from being part of the honor guard.
“I love it, and I think all of us feel that way,” he says.
Reid and Howard Haynes are other honor guard members whose service reaches back into the early to mid 1990s.
Reid says the saddest services are when the honor guard members are the only people there for a veteran, beyond a minister or funeral home personnel.
Even without an audience, the honor guard follows its entire protocol, with assistance now from the National Guard.
The honor guard limits itself strictly to Rowan County, and Craddock judges that 70 percent of their duties are conducted at the Salisbury National Cemetery Annex, located on the grounds of the Hefner VA Medical Center.
Still, the honor guard probably has been to every cemetery in Rowan.
“We found some we didn’t know were there,” Craddock says.
Gulledge says the honor guard performs civic duties beyond the graveside services. Members visit nursing homes, conduct flag-raisings, play “Taps” at other services, participate in Memorial Day activities and are part of Veterans Day and Fourth of July parades.
Hank Smith, who is not even a member of the guard, keeps the M-1 Garand rifles from World War II cleaned and oiled. Craddock carries seven of the rifles to each ceremony in the back of his pickup. He says the guard has 14 rifles in all.
The M-1s shoot .30-06 blanks (powder). The shell casings discharged are given to family members, along with the U.S. flags.
“It has a flash to it,” Craddock says of firing the guns.
The honor guard’s white gloves — a new accessory — are hard to keep clean because of residue from firing the old rifles. Craddock says his wife has found success in making them white again by soaking the gloves in OxyClean.
Retired Army, Shaver has been playing a horn since the sixth grade. He first played “Taps” at a funeral when he was 17, to honor a World War I friend of his family’s.
Because they spend so much time together at solemn occasions, the honor guard members often cut up with each other and share lunches on their way to the next cemetery.
“It’s always great to be with these guys,” Shaver says.
After their recent 11 a.m. ceremony at Rowan Memorial Park, the men were scheduled to participate in the 2 p.m. military rites for a veteran being buried at Wyatt’s Grove Baptist Church on the far eastern edge of the county.
No problem.
“We’ve got a good crew,” Craddock says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@

Members of the Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard include Billy Leach, Dave Shaver, Lewis Reid, Howard Haynes, Bill Hagadorn, Eugene Rumple, Harry Evans, Homer Robertson, Gary Gulledge, Harold Andrews, Al Rankin, Charles Cauble, Bill Craddock, Elija Caraway, Narvie Bonds, Mike White, Dave Shaff, Benny Freeze, Robert Wagner and Harry Fero.
For more information on the group or to ask about making a donation, contact Bill Craddock at 704-855-7323.