A ritual and a debt
November 14, 2012
By Sebastian Moraga
Honor guard serves at funerals and memorials
Some debts are recession proof, weather proof, even time proof.
Some don’t even involve money, but rather strength, patience and an indelible sense of duty.
“It’s the least we can do for our brothers,” said Bob Hamerly, one of the men who met once a month, always on the first Tuesday, to repay their debt.
That’s when Hamerly and other members of the American Legion Post 79 in Snoqualmie — Michael Johnston, Dave Lake, Art Farash and chaplain Lee Scheeler — traveled to Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent to serve as honor guards at military funerals and memorials.
They stand in uniform and perform a gun salute. They act as chaplains, buglers and riflemen during the ceremonies.
“They bring the relatives into the area where they hold it and get them seated,” Johnston said. “Then, there’s also two soldiers or sailors or whatever service the individual is, they bring people from that group to take care of the flag. Then, they blow ‘Taps’ at the end, very ceremonial.”
All but the flag-folding duties go to the honor guard.
‘A good thing to do’
Johnston, at 64, is the youngest of the bunch. A Vietnam veteran, he made his first Tuesday trip on Election Day, as an introduction to the group, Farash said.
Johnston did not think about participating until he attended a funeral for his wife’s uncle — also a veteran — at a Renton cemetery. During that military burial, he said, having an honor guard of other veterans struck him not as a nice touch but as a necessity.
“It’s for fellow soldiers who basically put their lives on the line,” he said.
A newbie to this ceremony, Johnston is no rookie when it comes to honoring his brothers in arms.
Not only does he belong to the American Legion Post 79 Honor Guard, but he has participated in Run For The Wall, a motorcycle ride from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in support of prisoners of war and military personnel missing in action.
Johnston said his experience makes him familiar with many of the protocols involving an honor guard.
“It’s just a good thing to do,” he said. “It’s getting tougher, because many of the guys doing it are World War II veterans and they are getting a little too old for it.”
Hamerly and Lake no longer make every trip, Farash said.
“More veterans are dying,” said Scheeler, an 86-year-old World War II Army vet. “World War II veterans are dying at a rate of almost 800 per day.”
Tahoma National Cemetery used to have one shelter for these ceremonies. The cemetery now has three.
Of all the honor guard members, its commander, the 77-year-old Farash is the one who has seen the most recent military action, serving in Vietnam and as a civilian contractor in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, as an interrogator.
Honoring special requests
The guardsmen from the Valley used to travel to Tahoma National Cemetery two to three times a month, but since more Legion members statewide are volunteering, they make one trip a month nowadays.
“They’ve got someone for every day of the week,” said Hamerly, a 91-year-old World War II Navy veteran who has belonged to the American Legion for 65 years.
Sometimes, Farash said, a group of former South Vietnamese military people join them in paying tribute.
“They fought side-by-side with the Americans,” Farash said. “They are all American citizens now.”
The three shelters make it tricky for the honor guard. Sometimes preachers go long and the honor guard has to move on to the next ceremony.
Some veterans have special requests for their funerals. The guard honors most of them.
This November, the family of one veteran had requested not having a firing party. The guardsmen acquiesced this time. Other petitions get a different response.
“Someone once in a while will ask us to not use the word God,” Scheeler said. “We don’t pay them no attention.”
Scheeler said that if you are an agnostic or an atheist, you probably would not want an honor guard, whose rituals include mentioning words like heaven and God.
Besides, said Lake, 90, a Navy veteran of World War II who has been volunteering at the funerals since 1997, “I never met an atheist who has had a close call.”
Giving respect where it’s due
With World War II veterans dying, and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans raising a family and making a living, it’s the turn of the Vietnam veterans to answer a different type of call of duty, Johnston said.
“It’s the right time for me to do it,” said Johnston, who still works part time.
A soldier during a more turbulent time, Johnston said he remembers when folks weren’t so kind to their compatriots in uniform.
“I was from the Vietnam War and I went through a long time where people did not want to hear what had happened to me in my service, and that was kind of hurtful,” he said. “They wanted to shame me into thinking I had done something wrong, and we should not have been treated the way we were.”
With time, attitudes changed, Johnston said.
“The way the country turned around and started dealing with this was a lot different,” he said. “It made me very proud.”
This month, not even the forecast calling for 90 percent chance of rain could keep Johnston and three other veterans from honoring five members of the armed forces.
Four of them had been cremated; one was being buried.
“I did not know what to expect,” Johnston said. “It was all new to me. It kind of reminded me of the ceremony in Washington, D.C., at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Just the atmosphere and the emotional feeling of respect given to the guys who have died.”
Kinship and camaraderie
Neither he nor any of the Honor Guardsmen knew the men being honored. Still, they felt a kinship with them and with their relatives.
“It’s a sense of camaraderie emotionally with the people,” Johnston said. “Understanding what they have gone through and what the relatives has gone through. It’s emotional, but at the same time is respectful, and it needs to be done.”
Families of veterans, he added, need to know someone else also cares.
Hamerly, Johnston and their fellow guardsmen want someone to return the favor once their time comes.
“Would not have it any other way,” Hamerly said.
“It’s not so much for me, since I would be dead, but for those who know me,” he said. “The fact that they would respect my wishes, it makes it worthwhile.”