Memorial Day comes roughly 115 times a year for a group of local military veterans that belong to Longmont‘s American Legion Post 32 Honor Guard.
This small group of 29 men and women, with military service dates ranging from the Korean War era to the present conflict in Afghanistan, volunteer their time once or twice a week to ensure that every veteran gets a proper military honors funeral. That includes the folding and presenting of the American flag, a three-gun volley salute, the playing of Taps — a 24-note bugle call that originated during the Civil War — a commemorative Post 32 memorial plaque and a pouch with three .30-06 shell casings that represent duty, honor and country.
Dressed in their tightly pressed uniforms, shined black shoes and patriotically decorated garrison caps, a five- to 14-member crew gathers at its post in Longmont, packs into a bus donated by an anonymous man and travels to various funeral locations across Denver and the Front Range.
The humor and wisecracks last the entire ride and are usually at one of the Honor Guard member‘s expense. Jokes about service affiliation, age and hearing loss echo off the walls of the bus.
“Sixty years ago, we would talk about cars and girls … Now, all we talk about is each others‘ ailments and medications,” Honor Guard Captain Dick Kounovsky said as he joked with others on the way to a funeral.
Another member blurted out: “Remember when one of the drivers got us lost on our way to a funeral and we ended up in a Safeway parking lot?” Everyone laughed in remembrance.
The jokes stop when they arrive at a funeral. All have been hardened by boot camp, and discipline is engrained into their souls. They all understand that they are ambassadors of the American Legion and need to remain dignified and respectful to the deceased veteran and his or her family.
After coordinating logistics with the funeral director, they wait patiently in two single-file lines parallel to each other, all of them holding an assortment of flags, including the American Flag and flags of each of the five military service branches.
The common military phrase, “hurry up and wait,” is still part of their everyday life as they stand at rest, waiting for the flag-draped coffin or urn with family and loved ones passing them by. Then, they march in a synchronous military style to their relative positions for the funeral procession.
Post 32 members are usually accompanied by at least two members of an active-duty Honor Guard, if they are available and not performing honors for another funeral. They perform the folding and presenting of the flag. Post 32 is then responsible for the three-gun volley, presenting of the commemorative plaque and pouch and rendering a final salute to the veteran and their family. If the active-duty personnel are not available, Post 32 will present the full honors, including the playing of Taps by one of their three buglers that include two students from Silver Creek High School.
Last year alone, members of the Post 32 Honor Guard logged more than 4,500 hours providing funeral honors for veterans, as well as other events such as parades and classroom visits to teach students the importance of patriotism and military history, according to Kounovsky, who served in the Army from 1954 to 1957. He estimated that he has given a final farewell to more than 1,500 veterans in the 18-year span he has been part of the organization.
“It‘s a way to show respect to those who have served and have passed. We still feel like we are providing a service to our country in some small way,” Kounovsky said.
All of the Post 32 Honor Guard members seem to share a common bond and an unmistakable love for veterans and our country.
American Legion Post 32 Honor Guard Captain Richard Kounovsky salutes as the flag-draped coffin for Air Force veteran Theodore “Ted” Stauffer is carried into the cemetery on May 18. ()
“I do my best to get to every funeral because I figure that veteran served his or her time and they deserved their final honors,” said Ken Creamer, who served in the Navy from 1953 to 1975 as a hospital corpsman and has been a member of the Honor Guard for 26 years.
Hal Powell, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy from 1967 to 1971 and with the Honor Guard for the past five years, sees the Honor Guard as an opportunity to support our country and honor our veterans.
“I feel that as a veteran myself, I have an honor and a duty to support any current veteran that we have now … I don‘t know how many times I have teared up, whether I am folding a flag, shooting a rifle or holding a flag. It‘s really one of those things that get you right here as a veteran,” Powell said as he tapped the palm of his hand on his chest above his heart.
“You‘re really paying a final tribute to him or her at that service or ceremony and it‘s really been an honor and pleasure to do that … I would really like to see our current Honor Guard be there for me when I pass to give the services that we give every day,” he added.
‘A wonderful thing‘
Pat Patrick, a Navy veteran that served during the Vietnam War era from 1966 to 1970, said that “every man and every woman that wore a uniform is due a military funeral.”
“You trust your brothers with your life, and they trust you. It‘s the same with the American Legion: We on the Honor Guard cover each others‘ back. No matter where, no matter when. That‘s what we did in the service and that‘s what we do now,” he said.
This team of patriots has given many fond memories to families by honoring their loved ones after they pass away, and they are always thanked by the family before or after the honors ceremony.
“For them to come and do that for him, I appreciate immensely and I know he would have too,” Frankie Maras said as she talked about her late husband, Marine Corps veteran Michael Joseph Maras, after a military honors funeral at the Country Gospel Cowboy Church in Johnstown.
With tears in his eyes and his voice cracking, Don Sittner said, “It was a special honor for them to be out here for Larry‘s burial,” speaking of the Honor Guard and his deceased brother, Larry D. Sittner, who served in the Air Force. “The 21-gun salute was beautiful, Taps was beautiful and the words that the Honor Guard told us personally was a wonderful thing,” he added.
Gratitude toward the Honor Guard is also expressed regularly from various funeral directors across the region.
“The Honor Guard has made a positive impact on the military honors services at Fort Logan National Cemetery, as well as honoring our military veterans. No duty is more important than that of returning thanks. They serve an important and vital role in providing the proper military honors that our veterans have earned,” said Mat Williams, funeral director at the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.
Sometimes, they are even given a “thank-you” from above.
“We were paying tribute to a veteran near Lake Mead in Berthoud, I was on the rifle squad and it was our turn to fire the three-gun volley, and when we fired the first one, an eagle was circling overhead. And that really, really sunk in to me that this is worth it,” Powell said.
Symbolically, the bald eagle represents freedom, a privilege that is protected by all veterans who serve.
“The importance of Honor Guards across the nation are to show families how much we appreciate the time that our military heroes spent in the service. The fact that they put their lives on hold to give us this great country that we have. The Honor Guards are there to give that final salute, to finally say goodbye to our friends, our brothers our sisters and make sure the family understands how much we appreciate that service that they gave,” said Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion.
Rohan is an Army veteran and the first female national commander in the 99-year history of the American Legion.
“One of the American Legion‘s big things is to teach our children what it means to be an American. Part of that is teaching the honor and respect for the American flag. It‘s a big controversy these days when you see football players kneeling for the national anthem and a lot of children think of pro sports athletes as heroes… but the American Legion is there to make sure that our children learn as they are growing that the real heroes are those that put their lives on hold to give them the country that they have,” she added.
However, the American Legion is plagued with an aging demographic and declining membership.
“We need more and more veterans to step up to the plate and continue serving others who have served in the past,” Powell said.