Funerals Overwhelming Honor Guards

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

DULUTH, Minn. -- An estimated 1,800 military veterans die every day across the country, and honor guards such as the one in this northern Minnesota city are struggling to keep up with serving at as many as two or three funerals per day.

Congress passed a law in 1999 ensuring that all veterans could receive full military honors at their funerals. But it failed to include much money for the practice, and the military has largely turned to veterans organizations to provide the service. A few states grant small stipends to honor guards, but Minnesota does not.

Adding to the difficulty, said John Marshall, captain of the Duluth Combined Honor Guard, is the Army's refusal to allow him to replenish his ranks with the adult children of vets. "They want to honor veterans. I don't know why they shouldn't be able to do it," said Marshall, whose group consists of Legionnaires, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other service organizations.

The problem is a little-known federal statute that bars the Army from giving ceremonial M-1 rifles to honor guards with non-veteran members for firing during a poignant part of most military funerals.

Marshall, an Army veteran who served in the first Gulf War, would like to supplement his honor guard with members of the Sons of the American Legion -- a group affiliated with the American Legion.

"These are our sons and grandsons; these are responsible people. It shouldn't be an issue," said Mike Duggan, the Washington-based deputy director of foreign affairs for the American Legion, a nationwide veterans service organization with more than 3 million members.

Army officials see it differently. "These veterans, they've been in the military, they know how to handle a military issue weapon," said Ed Wolverton, chief of the donations program at the Army TACOM Lifestyle Management Command in Warren, Mich. "The sons are often younger folks; they're teenagers sometimes. They've maybe not been trained properly on these weapons."

Wolverton said he has little power to investigate whether honor guards around the country are following the statute. But he will not give weapons or ammunition to those he knows are not, and said if he finds out the rules are being broken, he will repossess the materials.

It would take an act of Congress to change the rifle statute. A spokesman for Rep. James L. Oberstar, whose district includes Duluth, said the Democrat is looking into the issue.

Many veterans organizations did not know about the statute and said they regularly augment their honor guards with members of the Sons of the American Legion. But when Marshall tried to do that, the Army told him no.

The Duluth Combined Honor Guard has about 30 members, but Marshall said he can count on only about a dozen to be regularly available to attend veterans' funerals -- not only in Duluth but in surrounding communities where local veterans organizations are having even more serious membership problems.

"Some of our guys are 86, 89 years old," Marshall said. "There are some younger guys, but they have families, jobs. They don't have time to be running to 11 or 12 funerals a week."

Still, he said, "as long as I'm commander, I won't turn anyone down -- anytime, anywhere."

-- Associated Press

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