Morale: Solving The Honor Guard Shortage


May 24, 2009: The war in Iraq and Afghanistan have eclipsed another military crises, the many veterans who have been passing away since September 11, 2001. The World War II generation is rapidly fading away. Over twelve million men and women served in World War II, and most of them were born between 1915-35. In the last decade, over a thousand a day have been dying of old age. By law, they are entitled to military honors at their burial. This usually involves a small honor guard to fire a ceremonial volley of blanks over the grave, and someone to play taps.

Three years ago, it was realized that barely half of these veterans were able to get military honor guards at their funerals. So the U.S. Department of Defense decided to innovate. For one thing, they allowed veterans organizations to fill in. Actually, veterans had already been helping out unofficially, but now the government would pay them, if an active duty member of the armed forces was available to lead the detail. Under the new program, veterans organizations provide uniformed vets for the honor guards, and these volunteers get $50 for their day long efforts to assist at the funeral. This still left some veterans in rural areas out of luck. Over the last few decades, many rural areas have become depopulated to the point where even local veterans organizations cannot find enough members to operate a chapter.

There were other problems to solve. Having the honor guard, to fire a volley over the grave of the veteran, is a often a big thing for the families, and the vets often ask for it before they pass away. For many of these men and women, their war service was a defining moment in their lives. They want it to be remembered, and the honor guard is the most visible way to do that. While it’s easy to get people to fire blanks from a rifle, finding people who can play Taps on a bugle is another matter. Increasingly, Taps has been played on a boom box, much to the chagrin of all in attendance. In an effort to solve the problem, veterans organizations sought high school musicians who can play Taps at these funerals. Auditions are held, and the qualified volunteers are then available to play Taps at these funerals. Some states provide performance fees, in the form of vouchers that can be used to help pay tuition at state colleges. The students feel honored to be able to help out, especially in wartime. There are a much smaller number of military funerals (2-3 a day) for those killed in the current war, and these usually get taps played by military musicians.

Another solution was in the form of a miniaturized digital playback mechanism that is built into a bugle. The special bugle can be brought to the musicians lips, a small button pushed, and out of the bugle comes the melody of Taps as if it were actually being played. No one at the funerals realized that the bugle was an electronic gadget, not a musical instrument.

Another little known way to get military honors at the funeral,  is burial at sea. This is available to all veterans, although until now only a few navy veterans took advantage of it. All the family has to do is contact the navy, then have the deceased delivered, in a metal casket, with 150 pounds of weights at the feet (so it sinks feet first), to Norfolk, Virginia, or San Diego, California naval bases. There, the next warship to depart will take on the casket, and once on the high seas, conduct the ancient burial at sea ceremony. This is similar to the one conducted on land, complete with sailors firing 21 rounds from rifles as a salute. After that and the prayer, the casket is sent overboard. The family gets back the American flag that covered the casket, along with the empty rifle shells and a naval chart showing the location of the ship when the ceremony was conducted. About ten veterans a week are buried at sea, and the number is rising. With over a hundred ships at sea at any time, the burial detail doesn't put a strain on the crews, and is often a welcome break from the daily routine, and an opportunity to honor one of those who served before them.


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