Military honors detail pays the country's final respects to veterans with precision, compassion

Military honors detail pays the country's final respects to veterans with precision, compassion

May 28th, 2012 by Todd South in News

Tennessee Army National Guard funeral detachment team members Pfc. Eugene Kelly, Pfc. George Sullivan and Spc. Aaron Shelton stand at attention while performing a service for an Army veteran at the Chattanooga National Cemetery on Thursday.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Gallery: MLK Boulevard Mural Dedication

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Memorial Day events


When: 10:30 a.m. EDT

Where: Bradley County Courthouse, Ocoee Street, downtown Cleveland

What: City/County Memorial Day program


When: 11 a.m. EDT

Where: Chattanooga National Cemetery

What: Chattanooga Area Veterans Council Memorial Day program


When: 11 a.m. EDT

Where: Trenton, Ga., Veterans Park on the Courthouse square

What: American Legion Post 106 program


When: 10 a.m. CDT

Where: Monteagle Cemetery Pavilion, Monteagle, Tenn.

What: Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9586 Memorial Day program


When: Noon-8 p.m. EDT

Where: Lake Winnepesaukah, 1730 Lake View Drive, Rossville.

What: Free admission and unlimited rides at Lake Winnepesaukah for military personnel, active and retired with valid military ID.


When: 1 p.m. EDT

Where: East Ridge City Hall, 1510 Tombras Ave.

What: American Legion Post 95 Memorial Day program

Each day across Tennessee, a team of soldiers stands in crisp uniforms and folds a flag over the casket of a deceased veteran.

The Tennessee Army National Guard Military Honors program began in 2003, with the Volunteer State one of six states to pilot the program. That year, soldiers performed 365 funerals in Tennessee; last year, it was 6,000.

Tennessee ranks third in the number of Guard funeral services in the nation, behind only New York and California. No other state comes close in funerals per capita.

As more World War II and Korean War veterans reach their 80s and beyond, their numbers decline. U.S. census and Veterans Administration estimates show that, of the 6 million people in Tennessee, more than half a million are veterans.

A military funeral is an earned benefit of every veteran, and the Guard promotes its service among veterans' groups and funeral directors.

"We have never turned down a funeral request," said Command Sgt. Maj. Bill Marley, former head of the Chattanooga funeral honors program.

For a 20-soldier team based out of the Guard armory on Holtzclaw Avenue, those honors mean busy days. Sometimes they drive across their 25-county area, which stretches from the Kentucky state line in Clay County to the Georgia and Alabama state lines here. The team often helps its counterparts in nearly 20 counties surrounding their region in Tennessee and sometimes in Alabama and North Georgia.

The Chattanooga team performed 1,455 funerals in the past year, one-quarter of all such services in the state. The busiest month had 132, the slowest 91, according to Guard figures.

But numbers don't tell enough about those who carry out the final honors to veterans.

Staff Sgts. Missy Brewer, 44, and Danny Woods, 41, head the local team. Each has served in honor teams and trained soldiers and now coordinates, oversees and evaluates the unit's work.

Each day's schedule is dictated by requests, most from funeral directors the day before or in an unexpected overnight fax awaiting the team's morning arrival.

Here's how one day last week unfolded:

9 a.m.

Brewer, Woods and Spc. Luke Hargrove, 30, await teams of soldiers scheduled for three funerals at Chattanooga National Cemetery and one in Whitwell, Tenn. Two soldiers already have left for a service in Anderson County, two hours away.

The men squeeze around each other in a shotgun-style, cement-block locker room a few steps from the unit's office door, tweezing out stray strings, polishing medals and shoes and scraping off any sign of lint on their dark-black jackets hanging along the wall.

Pfc. Eugene Kelly, 20, a New York native, eyes his dress uniform and slides a hot iron across the pants. Kelly will fold a flag in a morning funeral service, then carry a casket and fire a rifle in an afternoon service. Folding the flag is his favorite duty. He can see the family and, when the flag is handed off, he knows he has honored that veteran.

Hargrove checks and re-checks his list. For the morning service, he'll stay in his cammies -- camouflage -- standing at a distance with a clipboard, assessing the team's performance. The service is at 11:30 a.m., but their rules require them to be there an hour before. When they arrive, the detail leader will check out the spot, make sure everything is in place and walk through the service at least twice with the other soldiers.

10:25 a.m.

Hargrove; Kelly; Spc. Brad Walker, 21; and Spc. Charles Collins, 53, load up in a government van and roll the half-mile to the cemetery, driving around its flag-lined roadway, past veterans of conflicts from the Civil War to current ones.

Under Guard guidelines every veteran rates a standard service -- with soldiers performing a flag folding, the presentation and the playing of taps. Retired military veterans and those who die in service can request full military honors -- with seven soldiers to perform duties as pallbearers, flag folding and presentation, rifle salute and taps.

This morning's service is for a U.S. Navy veteran. The Guard performs services for all branches when that service is unavailable.

11:25 a.m.

The cemetery's funeral procession silver guide car crests the hill.

"Mission!" shouts Hargrove, and the men snap to position.

Thirty-seven cars file down the hill after the hearse arrives. Family members carry the casket to the stone, called a bier, where it will rest during the service.

Walker stands at the flag-draped casket's head, staring across at Kelly, who stands rigid at the foot.

At the conclusion of the sermon, the one-minute-long bugle call of taps begins. With the last note, Walker and Kelly stretch the flag flat and begin the 13 folds. Collins simultaneously lays his cornet down and marches to aid the pair in the folding.

"C'mon," whispers Hargrove, standing out of earshot, watching, marking the seconds. There are standards for everything in the military, and Hargrove expects the folding to go faster.

Fold, tug, tuck, fold, tug, tuck. The trio repeats the process until the red, white and blue starred cloth rests in Collins' hands, a neat triangle.

With two hands he offers it to Walker, who also uses two hands to take it as Collins snaps a salute. Walker turns, marches to the veteran's wife, bends forward at the waist and with two hands presents the flag, then whispers to her: "On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Navy and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."

He stands, salutes and marches away, down the hill, to the van and back to the armory to await the next service.

12:15 p.m.

At the armory, Hargrove, Kelly, Walker and Collins have shed their dress jackets but still wear the white-collared undershirt, white suspenders, blue pants and black shoes as they await Hargrove's after-action report.

"How long do you think that flag fold took?" he asks.

"Two minutes?" answers Walker.

"Two minutes?" echoes Collins.

"Two-eighteen," replies Hargrove. "At 1:17 you were at the tuck. You should be at the tuck at 30 seconds."

The second-by-second demands are barely a tick and would never be noticed by a civilian, but as Marley, Brewer and Woods have said, the service is a self-respect thing. The men know that a perfect service isn't possible; they're not machines. But the goal in each step is to strive for perfection.

1:16 p.m.

Hargrove, dressed for ceremony, diagrams a map of the next site in blue marker on a whiteboard for the scheduled 2:30 p.m. funeral at Chattanooga National. A pair of soldiers already has left for the service in Whitwell, Tenn.

Halfway through Hargrove's talk, the phone rings. Woods calls from across the room, "Hey, Hargrove, the cemetery just called, and the service will be at 2, not 2:30."

Instantly the team is up and moving, donning jackets, grabbing keys.

"OK, let's go. Get your weapons; get your rounds," Hargrove commands.

By 1:25 p.m. the vans are pulling out of the parking lot.

The soldiers arrive as another service is finishing. The men wait under a shade tree down the hill and begin their walk-through practice. Today at least two other burials will take place, handled by active-duty Marines and Army. The cemetery easily can have five funerals a day during the week, sometimes more than twice that, officials said.

2 p.m.

The hearse pulls up a little short, so the rehearsed eight steps must be adjusted slightly. Before the vehicle arrived, the detail -- Hargrove; Kelly; Collins; Walker; Pfc. Aaron Shelton, 21; Pfc. George Sullivan III, a 21-year-old from a nine-sibling military family; and Staff Sgt. Zachariah Ryan, the detail's highest-ranking soldier who joined the unit just a month ago -- had counted the steps necessary to align with the hearse, then remove, rotate and march the casket to the bier.

This is a full service for a retired Army veteran and, after the team unloads the casket, the men take five sidesteps to clear the hearse then, in unison, turn 180 degrees and switch hands. They turn five steps clockwise to face the bier and march softly forward, gently resting the precious cargo. All but two march away to retrieve their rifles.

At the end of the service, the rifles fire once, twice, three times for a full volley. After taps, Hargrove and Ryan begin flag folding. Moments later, Ryan steps somberly to the man's wife, as Walker did this morning, and leans forward, offering condolences and the flag.

3 p.m.

The soldiers knew their sergeants would be there at today's services, but sometimes they aren't. Brewer or Woods may come to the cemetery and park just out of sight to secretly watch the services.

"They never even know I'm there," Brewer says.

During the afternoon evaluation, Woods sees room for improvement.

"13:18 to 13:25 to get the last vehicle out -- why?" he asks, referring to the previous change that bumped up the funeral service 30 minutes.

The men said they had things scattered, keys here, an ammunition can there. One or two forgot something and had to run back inside. Everybody agrees the team arrived ahead of schedule, rehearsed beforehand and gave a good full-service funeral.

As Woods advises, some evaluations are just nitpicking. Always room for improvement. And more work. The funerals are done, the debrief is finished. But the office needs a cleaning and it's physical fitness time.

4:10 p.m.

Brewer and Woods are at their desks, reviewing spreadsheets of data on which they track their soldiers -- who's on leave, who's working tomorrow, who has a deployment coming. The team lost five soldiers to the last deployment and got two in return, so they're down three.

Team members get paid for their rank and time. A private gets $56 a day; a senior sergeant makes about $108 each day. As the sergeant major told them, it's a good, honorable job but not a career. A handful become full-time and get the active duty salary and benefits.

Most make it a job while they're in school or until their next deployment or a better-paying civilian job comes along. All the soldiers have other jobs within the Guard and must drill once a month and attend annual training.

Woods just wrote three funerals for tomorrow on the board. They know they have at least six color guard services for the Memorial Day weekend. And the fax machine is always on.