Guards still proud to perform last respects
By BETSY COHEN
Weekends, holidays, workdays.
It doesn't matter when, or for that matter, where. When the call is made, these aging veterans rearrange their personal schedules, cancel plans with their own families and pull freshly pressed uniforms from their closets to fulfill a duty.
These men and women are Missoula's VFW Post 209 Honor Guard and the American Legion Post 27 Color Guard.
Most of them are survivors of World War II and the Korean War; some fought in Vietnam, a few in Iraq.
Volunteers and American soldiers, every one.
In the cold, in the rain, in the warmth of a summer's day, they are graveside to pay tribute, one soldier to another, for the sacrifices that were made.
The color guard is there to carry the flags honoring the country and state the deceased served; the honor guard sends each veteran off with a three-volley gun salute.
They come from different wars, different branches of the military. Each has walked a different path, yet they are bound by a common thread.
"It's an ageless pride, this pride of country and service," said Ken Wick, 50, who is the youngest member of the nine-member color guard.
"The pride goes deep, the commitment goes deep for any and all of us who have served or who are serving."
On a good day, when there aren't two funerals to simultaneously attend, when nobody is ill and when everyone is in town, the color guard is happy to have a turnout of seven to nine.
The honor guard has 12 members, although it's difficult to get everyone together for every funeral and formal event, said Will Knutson, 73.
And now, with the Western Montana Veterans Cemetery, these groups are busier than ever.
In the past, they attended about 50 funerals a year. Now, because the veterans cemetery buries soldiers from all across the state and those returning home, they have attended more than 50 services since October alone, said Jerry Willis, 75, a member of the color guard.
Both groups are keenly aware they are aging most of their members are in their 60s, with several members in their 80s and few new recruits are joining their ranks.
Desire to serve and having served in the military are the only requirements.
"We can give them skills," Knutson said. "I've got a lot of guys who were in the Navy that never had to shoot a rifle, so we show them how to do that part, and the way we do the order of things."
As for practice, Knutson said, there isn't any.
"We don't need to," he said frankly, "we have enough to do we don't get out of practice."
Because honoring the dead takes time, and younger veterans don't have the kind of work flexibility to take time off for such service, the graveside duties fall mostly to those who are retired.
"I only hope there will be someone there to put me away," said 80-year-old Dwaine Selk, who fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
In the meantime, the respective guards will continue their work, honoring their fellow soldiers.
They hope that other veterans understand and value the service, and when the time is right, they too will step forward and carry on the duty with respect for the tradition.
In that regard, their best calling card is the work they do, week in and week out, said 79-year-old Charles "Ray" Doty, a member of the American Legion Color Guard.
The pride in which they carry themselves, and their collective experience of knowing what is war and what is service is undeniable.
"I think what we do is our best advertisement," Doty said. "And I think now, it is as important as ever."
For many, like Ray Grossman, 89, it's a final, formal act of service.
"It's my way to give back," said Grossman, a World War II veteran. "I think that I owe society something I do without pay.
"And at my age, I'm just happy I can get myself there to help."
Contrary to what one might think, the graveside work is in many ways inspiring, said Jack Reneau, 61, a member of the honor guard.
"There's nothing melancholic about it," he said. "You get satisfaction out of doing it for the families, and we get a chance to do something for other veterans and recognize their service as they are buried.
"It's our last opportunity to honor them and to say thanks."