There have more veterans funerals recently also. Those who served our country during World War II, Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Desert Storm and from Iraq are dying daily. We provide all of the care necessary for funerals for veterans, from military graveside services to the full military services in front of our funeral home or at your church. If you have any interest in pre-planning a veterans funeral, please call the Marshall Funeral Home anytime to take care of your veterans funeral.
Kent County Honor Guard remains a steady presence at veterans' last goodbye
Published: Sunday, May 27, 2012, 7:57 AM
KENT COUNTY, MI -- They are there when no else is. They stand in funeral parlors and churches or cemeteries, in cold or rain and under blazing summer sun, veterans who are determined that no soldier be left behind at their final hour. For 30 years, the Kent County Honor Guard has graced thousands of funerals of area veterans, a rite in which Grandville resident John Veenendall has proudly shared since 1985. He lost track of the actual number somewhere north of a thousand. Some of these services emorialize well-known community members, funerals attended by hundreds. But on occasion at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, said Veenendall, 86, the Honor Guard might be the only presence aside from the home's chaplain. "There are so many veterans who have been left out of things. To give them a proper burial is one of the nicest things that any veteran can do for another." Veenendall is a World War II Navy veteran, with service in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He has honored veterans, male and female, from his era all the way through those who served in Iraq. He needs no words to affirm what the Honor Guard means to friends or family members at the passing of a loved one. He sees it written on their faces. "You sure see an awful lot of them sitting there, dabbing with Kleenex. Men, women, children, they all do it." So it was earlier this month as the Honor Guard gathered at a Grand Rapids cemetery for the service of one of their own, Navy veteran Norman Lutz. The long-time Grand Rapids resident joined the Navy after his graduation from Union High School in 1944 and was eventually stationed in Japan. He died at 86. As part of the ceremony, his widow, Georgie Lutz, 84, accepted a folded American flag taken from the casket and given her by the Honor Guard commander. She was proud to honor this piece of his life. "It was a salute to him," she said. Ada resident Freeman Haehnel, 65, recalled the service three years ago for his brother-in-law, Vietnam War veteran Joseph Rogers. He remembered a speech about sacrifice for country, the three-volley salute, the playing of Taps. He remembered tears. "It was really quite moving. It really made everybody there feel a lot better," he said. Honor Guard commander Bob Becker, 68, said the group came into being when area veterans realized too many were passing without recognition of their military service. It presided at its first funeral in 1982, bringing together volunteers from the area's veterans organizations. They appear only if invited by the family. "It came down to the veterans who died deserve an honorable funeral," said Becker, an Air Force veteran and former sports editor for The Press. "It's kind of the last bit of respect that a person gets. It's like a natural closing," Becker said. With about 55 members, including three women, the group does about 500 funerals a year throughout Kent County. Seven to 10 members usually fill a squad, with a commander, chaplain, officer of the day, sergeant of the guard, a bugler and shooters for a ceremonial salute. The solemn ceremony is patterned after military protocol. At a typical service, the Guard marches in as one to salute a flag-draped casket. The appointed commander, chaplain and officer of the day remain nearby while the others file outside if it is at a funeral home or at a distance for a graveside ceremony. The commander recites a eulogy. He asks the chaplain to invoke his blessing, which reads in part: "Comrade after comrade departs this life. We march on, our ranks growing thinner." The rifle squad fires off a three-volley salute. A squad member plays Taps with an electronic bugle. Remaining squad members remove the flag from the casket and fold it. The commander hands it to next of kin. The bulk of the Honor Guard is comprised of retired men in their 60s or older, many now in their 80s. Because of that, it no longer performs graveside services in the cold of winter. Mark Moyer, 42, an Army veteran of the Gulf War, decided it was time for a new generation to step up. The Grand Rapids resident joined in May 2011, after meeting Honor Guard members in American Legion-sponsored trips to Washington, D.C. for World War II veterans to see the National World War II Memorial. Moyer was inspired by the willingness of older veterans to give up so much time to honor their comrades. "It reiterates to me that they were the greatest generation. We had some guys who did 200 funerals last year. It's something to look up to for people my age." Moyer, a senior project manager for a consulting firm, volunteers for weekend funerals since he is unable to do during the week. That means giving up time he might devote to racquetball or camping and fishing. "I don't mind at all," Moyer said. Wyoming resident Chrissy Davis-Williams, 56, is proud to be among the few women in the group. She joined in 1996, after 21 years in the Army Reserves and eight months active duty in the Gulf War. Like Moyer, she attends weekend funerals because her 40-hour-a-week work schedule at Amway Corp. prevents her from doing so during the week. "It's a way to give back," she said. Retired Grand Rapids insurance agent Marion Graff, 89, stands near the far side of the group's age spectrum. He served aboard the battleship U.S.S West Virginia in World War II, surviving a Kamikaze attack on the ship in 1945. He has been with the Honor Guard since 1988. He called it "an honor and a privilege" to be summoned. That is especially so when the Honor Guard stands alone to remember the life of a veteran. "I have to have been to probably six at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans where the only people there at the funeral was the Honor Guard. "You wonder what has happened. Was there any family? I don't know. We don't ask. "I think the comrade would be glad at least someone showed up."