Honor Guards across Utah have been officiating at the funerals of veterans for many years in an effort to provide a proper burial for those who served to protect freedom.
"People don't understand that less than 1 percent of Americans who wear the uniform today protect the rights of the other 99 percent," says James Slade, director of the Honor Guard program for the state. "Some never come home."
Organizations such as the American Legion and VFW have carried out the Honor Guard duties since WWII. "It is a worthy cause," says Vietnam veteran Fred Mason, a member of the District 8 Honor Guard of the American Legion. "I had the time, and I enjoy serving the veterans and their families. I help with as many as three funerals a day. Every serviceman deserves it. There are a lot of people who give a lot of hours."
However, many of these volunteers are in their 80s and 90s. "There are about 4,000 veterans from WWII dying each day in our country," Slade says. "By 2009 the majority of these men will be dead. We need help to continue the program."
Congress became concerned about the problem and in January implemented a new program turning over the responsibility of assisting at veterans' funerals to the National Guard. Slade was brought in to head it up. "I tried to retire," says 60-year-old Slade. "It is really up and running. The program is progressing faster than I expected. People have no idea what this service means. We had one funeral where one person showed up. It was sad, so sad."
Slade says there were about 1,000 veterans who died last year in Utah, but 300 did not receive the Honor Guard service because their families didn't know about it. Usually the funeral directors call for an Honor Guard but Slade says families may also call them directly. Once a request has been placed, the service organization goes through the Casualty Assistance Center out of Fort Carson in Colorado Springs to verify the deceased's status.
"There are different levels" says Slade. "If the person served two or three years in the military, we fold the flag and have a bugler present. For 20 years or more retired, we also have a rifle squad. Many people think it is a 21-gun salute, but actually only someone like the President of the United States would get that."
Taps, the 24-note military bugle call, is one of the most recognizable melodies and most likely to invoke emotion. Used at veteran's funerals, it is believed to have begun as a revised signal for Extinguish Lights (lights out) to end the day. Union General Daniel Butterfield adapted the music for Taps for his brigade in August 1862. Soon, it was used by other units and made the official bugle call after the Civil War ended.
Although the government has implemented a new program for the Honor Guard, there are still several guards who continue to use volunteers such as Benny Chavez. "I've been doing it since 1991," says Chavez, a veteran of the Korean War. "I've done way over 4,000 funerals. Normally I average about three hours for funerals by the time we set up and conduct the service. Back in the 1990s there weren't so many WWII vets passing away. Now they are passing away more rapidly."
Chavez and other Honor Guard members also do service for the community. "We go to schools, give talks and do presentations for Eagle Scouts," Chavez says. "On Flag Day, June 14, we did a memorial service."
George Horton, a WWII veteran, often works with Chavez in the Combined Veterans Honor Guard (CVHG), so named because the members belong to different veterans' organizations. Horton has been with the group for five years. Although disabled, Horton uses a walker to complete his duties. Horton says he is often in pain, but when he gets to the cemetery, he just goes to work.
This kind of attitude is what made these men good soldiers. "I was drafted to Vietnam just three months after returning from an LDS mission," recalls Slade. "I was a ranger sent to the jungle to gather information. In 1970 I got shot up a little bit." Later he served in a linguistic brigade retiring in 2006 after almost 30 years in the military.
Horton served in the Navy during WWII and while aboard the Light Cruiser USS San Diego CL-53 he was involved in the Solomon Island Campaign, an attack at Guadalcanal, the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands and many others. His ship picked up 200 survivors when the USS Hornet CV-8 was sunk.
Each man has his own history and reason for being involved with the Honor Guard. But all feel it is a privilege to pay tribute to their fallen comrades.
"Many families don't realize veterans can be buried for free at the Veterans' Park near Camp Williams," says Mason. "Their wives can be buried with them there for a small fee. It is a veteran's death benefit. Every serviceman deserves it."
Slade hopes the new program will help carry on the tradition of honoring veterans as they pass away, whether through the state or local organizations. "There are two things that are important," says Slade. "These soldiers should be honored when they are alive--and honored after they have died."