Military honors at veteran funerals imperiled by Army rules

January 10th, 2006  

Topic: Military honors at veteran funerals imperiled by Army rules

First it was no bugler, now this. What next?

January 09, 2006

Military honors at veteran funerals imperiled by Army rules

By Patrick Condon
Associated Press

DULUTH, Minn. — Charlene Shimmin cried as two members of the Duluth Combined Honor Guard handed her a folded American flag during a small memorial service for her husband, Jerry, a World War II veteran.
“I can’t tell you how much this means to a family,” said John Marshall, captain of the Duluth guard, which often provides its services at two or three funerals per day. “I would feel like hell if I couldn’t provide it for these men. I think that would be an absolute travesty.”
Marshall, a veteran of the first Gulf War, is worried about a federal statute, enforced by the U.S. Army, that he said is making it difficult to assemble an effective honor guard — even as veterans of WWII, the Korean War and other conflicts die at a rapid rate, an estimated 1,800 a day nationwide.
Marshall wants to replenish the honor guard’s ranks with members of the Sons of the American Legion — but the Army, which provides M-1 rifles and blank cartridges to honor guards nationwide for funeral gun salutes, said no.
“They want to honor veterans, I don’t know why they shouldn’t be able to do it,” Marshall said.
It’s a statute so little-known that top officials with the American Legion in Washington, D.C., weren’t familiar with it until The Associated Press brought it to their attention. They pledged to try to have it changed, but the Army said the statute was necessary.
“These veterans, they’ve been in the military, they know how to handle a military issue weapon,” said Ed Wolverton, chief of the Army donations program at the U.S. Army TACOM Lifestyle Management Command in Warren, Mich. “The sons are often younger folks, they’re teen-agers sometimes. They’ve maybe not been trained properly on these weapons — we don’t know that. But the vets have.”
Wolverton said he has little power to investigate whether honor guards around the country are following the statute. But he won’t give weapons or ammunition to those he knows aren’t, and said if he finds out the rules are being broken, he will repossess the materials.
“I have an obligation to … enforce the rules,” Wolverton said.
While the Duluth Combined Honor Guard has about 30 members, Marshall said he can only count on about a dozen to be regularly available to attend veterans’ funerals — not only in Duluth but in surrounding communities where local veterans organizations are having even more serious membership problems.
“Some of our guys are 86, 89 years old,” Marshall said. “There are some younger guys, but they have families, jobs. They don’t have time to be running to 11 or 12 funerals a week.”
In 1999, Congress passed a law ensuring that all veterans could receive full military honors at their funerals. But it failed to include much money for the practice, and the military has largely turned to veterans organizations to provide the service. A few states grant small stipends to honor guards, but Minnesota does not.
Marshall said his group’s expenses, such as buying uniforms and transportation, are covered by veterans’ families who are willing to make donations, and by fundraising. Still, he said, “as long as I’m commander, I won’t turn anyone down — anytime, anywhere.”
Marshall, along with numerous other leaders of veterans organizations, said it’s common practice at many posts around the country for honor guards to include members of Sons of the American Legion posts.
“Of what I’ve seen around the state, nearly every color guard does have one or two or three members in it who actually belong to Sons of the American Legion,” said Al Zdon, spokesman for the Minnesota American Legion.
Pat Hogan, commander of the American Legion Post in Keokuk, Iowa, said he regularly augments his honor guard with Sons of the American Legion members — and didn’t know he was not supposed to.
“It should be up to us to take care of our own,” Hogan said. “I don’t think these guys going to their final rest would mind at all.”
It’s not the only way that honor guards are running afoul of Army regulations. Mike Clark, who is active with the Vietnam Veterans Color Guard in the Minneapolis suburb of Anoka, said the Army wouldn’t give his group ammunition because they wanted to use their own rifles, rather than ones donated by the Army.
“We did 227 funerals in 2005,” Clark said. “In the last four years, 897 total. We’re doing the military’s job for them, and they’re making it harder — they hindered instead of helped.”
Wolverton said it would take an act of Congress to change the statute. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, whose district includes Duluth, said the congressman is looking into the issue.
When officials with the American Legion in Washington, D.C., found out about the statute, they said they’d strongly consider a push to scrap it.
“We’re talking about members of the American Legion family,” said Mike Duggan, the deputy director of foreign affairs. “We’re not making a big distinction as to who does what. These are our sons and grandsons, these are responsible people. It shouldn’t be an issue.”
Clark said he has three thick books full of thank you letters from families of veterans whose funerals at which he served. “This means so much to them, and if it were up to the government, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Clark said. “But we’re Vietnam veterans. We’ll prevail.”