Members of the American Legion Color Guard, shown on July 31, 2012, continue the tradition of performing military rites at funerals across the region. Photo by David Grace.
Dressed in uniform, they stood at attention among graves a short distance away from my father’s freshly dug plot. The sound of Taps drifted through the cool November air, followed by a rifle salute and presentation of the flag to my mother.
The year was 1996, and these men of the American Legion Color Guard had traveled to this cemetery in Pennington Gap, Va., to honor the memory of a fallen soldier from World War II.
Today, members of the American Legion Color Guard continue the tradition of performing military rites at funerals across the region. It’s a show of honor and respect, performed voluntarily and unselfishly by military veterans for military veterans.
“Those who have been honorably discharged are entitled to a military honors funeral by act of Congress. I think we all feel that we like to administer these rites with dignity and respect and give them what they deserve and what they’ve earned,” said Gerald Cardwell, commander of the American Legion Hammond Post 3 in Kingsport.
So far this year, the American Legion Color Guard has conducted nearly 200 funerals in the region. Members travel to grave sites on their own dime, and appreciate donations when they get them.
“A lot of folks think we get paid,” Cardwell said.
“But we run strictly on donations,” said William P. Presley, 1st sergeant of the American Legion Color Guard.
The American Legion Color Guard has roughly 30 members and consists of veterans from Hammond Post #3 in Kingsport and American Legion Post #265 in Gate City.
Presley said the Color Guard includes veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to a written history, the Color Guard was organized in 1941 and began conducting military funerals in 1942, traveling more than 300 miles to perform nine funerals that first year.
In addition to conducting military funerals, the Color Guard during World War II assisted in farewell ceremonies for inductees leaving for training.
These days, the Color Guard participates in patriotic holiday celebrations, and conducts flag programs and presentations at area schools and nursing homes.
But perhaps the most memorable displays are the solemn military rites performed in graveyards.
Typically, Color Guard members arrive at the cemetery 30 minutes prior to the service. They erect the symbol of the fallen soldier — a pair of combat boots next to an inverted rifle with bayonet, with a soldier’s helmet hanging on the rifle.
When the hearse arrives, the Color Guard members stand at attention and salute.
Cardwell offers his comments in recognition of the decedent’s sacrifice for his or her country. And Presley, who serves as chaplain of the Color Guard, says a prayer. The firing team launches three volleys from their rifles, and Taps is played. The Color Guard then folds the flag and presents it to the next of kin.
At the end of the service, the firing team collects their empty shells for the family of the deceased.
“They line up and file past the family to give their condolences, and the next of kin is given the bag of shells,” Cardwell said. “It can be a very moving experience.”
Historical records were destroyed years ago, so it’s unclear just how many military funerals have been conducted by the local Color Guard.
However, more recent figures show that more than 1,100 funerals were conducted between 2006 and 2011.
Families can request military rites through their funeral home. And while the Color Guard conducts these funerals voluntarily, donations are much appreciated.
Cardwell said donations are used to purchase uniforms as well as to buy gasoline and repairs for the group’s 2002 van. The American Legion is working to raise funds for a newer van to transport the Color Guard to long-distance funerals and other events.
“If we’re to continue honoring these veterans into the future, we’re going to have to come up with something that’s reliable,” said Donnie Vanzant, a member of the American Legion Color Guard.
“We need a new van. The old van is quitting on us,” said Otis Lawson, vice commander of the Color Guard.
If you’d like to contribute, write to the American Legion Color Guard, Hammond Post 3, P.O. Box 66, Kingsport, Tenn., 37662. You can also call (423) 246-6991, or e-mail email@example.com.