For 44 years, Fairmont honor guard salutes veteransby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Fairmont, Minn. — A little over a week before Memorial Day, an honor guard assembles at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Fairmont.
As the guard's members exchange handshakes and hugs, a strong wind whipped their flags. Then a phone call gives them the heads up that the funeral procession was on its way.
As the honor guard waited for the mourners to arrive, they discuss where to line up and other details concerning this final salute to a fellow vet.
The guard is comprised of members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. They all wear blazers, white gloves and a garrison cap -- a foldable hat pointed at each end.
Veryl Champine, an honor guard member who served in the U.S. Navy from 1962-66, said the group has turned out at veterans funerals for a long time.
"Our honor guard started in 1966," Champine said.
The members of the group have become real veterans of the honor guard ceremony. Champine figures they've appeared at roughly 1,300 funerals over those 44 years. That means they've been outside in almost every type of weather Minnesota offers.
"We did one in January that was right at 20 below with a 40-below wind chill and we were facing right into it," he said. "And by the time we were done the wind was making your eyes water and you had ice hanging off your chin."
"Color guard, ten-hut!"
Commanding the honor guard is Bob Stewart, U.S. Army 1953-55. He's been at more than 1,000 ceremonies. The one on this day is for Jack Breen, U.S. Army 1954-56. Breen ran a farm machinery business in Fairmont before he retired and moved to Arizona. His wife Sheryl said her husband always wanted a military funeral service.
"He definitely wanted the bugle, and he wanted the flags and the rifles," Sheryl Breen said. "He wanted the full military honors and he told that to me many times."
Military honor guards have a long history. The rifle salute has its origins in a British military custom. The bugler playing Taps started with the Union Army in the Civil War.
The bugler at Breen's service is Moni Harper, the only person in the squad who did not serve in the armed forces. But she still has a close connection to the military. Her brother Tim, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant 1968-71, was killed in the Vietnam War.
"Good soldier," Harper said. "He had two weeks before he was supposed to come home when he went out on another mission he didn't have to and that's when he lost his life."
"Honor guard, ten-hut," Stewart said. "Present arms."
As the crowd of mourners gathers around the gravesite, the honor guard prepares for its signature moment. Ken Ringeisen, Minnesota National Guard 1970-93, is one of the four rifle bearers preparing to fire.
"It's an honor to do this for the veterans," Ringeisen said.
After the rifle salute, bugler Moni Harper plays taps, always an emotional moment.
"Of course it's for the person that passed away," Harper said. "But I'm hoping my brother is looking down from heaven and appreciating the fact that even after all these years I think about him daily."
This type of honor guard is becoming a little more difficult to find for military funerals. The average age of the members in the Fairmont group is 77.
They say it's hard to find younger veterans willing to volunteer the time it takes to be a part of the honor guard. They wonder who's going to fill their shoes when they move on.
- Morning Edition, 05/31/2010, 7:25 a.m.