69: An Honor to Be an Honor Guard

69: An Honor to Be an Honor Guard

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

An Honor to Be an Honor Guard

No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.

~James Allen

If George Brown can do it, then so can I. George is Captain of the all-volunteer Honor Guard for the Gloucester County Veterans Memorial Cemetery in southern New Jersey. George is ninety years old.

After retirement, I was anxious to do volunteer work. As a military veteran myself, I was drawn to serve with the twenty-member Honor Guard, which pays tribute to our deceased veterans as they go to their final resting place. Seven years ago, I joined the group. After receiving a uniform, George said, “I’ll call you when the next funeral is scheduled.” I learned the procedure by doing.

Everyone knows how fulfilling volunteer work can be. But serving at the cemetery has been especially rewarding for me. It is a sad time for the families of the deceased, but they are genuinely grateful for the honor and dignity of our ceremony. We see the comfort on their faces when they arrive at the cemetery and find us already in formation. As the American flag-draped casket or an urn with a folded flag is carried from the hearse, we remain in formation.

We then present arms. The casket or urn is placed at the gravesite. The flag is removed from the casket or unfolded for those with an urn. Then we fire three volleys from our rifles. We present arms while “Taps” is played. The soulful notes from the bugle often echo across the vast fields of gravesites. We then stand at parade rest as two members of the military branch of the deceased perform the flag folding and presentation to the surviving spouse or family member. Once again, we present arms, and then march off the field.

We leave the field feeling certain that we have brought a well-deserved honor to the deceased and, hopefully, a sense of healing to his or her loved ones.

Whenever I’m called for a funeral, I accept whatever role I am given that day. I’ve been the bugler, a member of the flag brigade, and most often one of the firing squad (the peaceful kind). The Honor Guard ceremony is truly a team effort. Each role is equally important to our veterans’ families.

Our veteran’s cemetery was carved out of a farm field. The first interment was in 2004. To date, more than 1,800 military veterans are buried in a grave or inurned in a columbarium wall on the cemetery’s grounds.

Throughout the year, the cemetery is a peaceful, solemn place for families to visit their departed loved one. However, special ceremonies take place a few times a year. The Honor Guard is present for each one.

Memorial Day ceremonies bring out local dignitaries, television crews, newspaper reporters, and relatives and friends of deceased veterans. The Honor Guard marches out with a flag brigade and a firing squad to commemorate our fallen military veterans’ service to our country.

Christmastime finds the cemetery graced with winter wreaths of fresh evergreens and large red velvet bows. The organization People for People Foundation of Gloucester County spends many months preparing for the Wreaths for Remembrance ceremony when holiday wreaths are placed on each grave marker.

The organization coordinates a huge undertaking to collect donations for the wreaths and a call-out for volunteers. For me, it is a family affair. My daughter and son-in-law are members of that organization.

Many hundreds of volunteers answer the call each year for the laying of wreaths. Before formal ceremonies begin, volunteers visit every one of the 1,800 graves. As they place a wreath, they say, “Thank you for your service” to each deceased veteran.

The Honor Guard stands in formation during the formal ceremony. Then we fire three volleys and play “Taps.”

On that day, the usually quiet cemetery becomes a field filled with love, honor and holiday spirit. It is both a day for those who kneel in front of the grave markers to reflect upon their loss, as well as a reminder to all of the patriotism of those who served in the military.

Each year, I am honored once again to be part of the ceremony.

Our Honor Guard shares the U.S. Postal Service’s adage, “Neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom…” We are out there whenever duty calls — be it a hot July afternoon or a bitter, wind-blown January morning. And yes, George, at age ninety, is always there, so I have no excuse for not showing up. Not that I’d need one.

~Christian Harch

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