Military funeral honors program provides final goodbye to veteran
To volunteer, train and be certified to provide military funeral honors programs for veterans, veterans should call Mike Johnson at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Kienow-Hilt Post 1621 in Janesville at (608) 754-4342 or Bob Engstrom of the local Vietnam veterans chapter at (608) 754-2706.
JANESVILLE Bob Engstrom is moved each time he helps give military honors at a funeral.
“Every military funeral I have ever been in I have had a tear in my eye for the veteran. It is an honor to be part of the veteran’s military honor program,’’ he said.
Engstrom coordinates the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 236 military funeral honors program.
“Everyone of us take military honors very seriously so we provide the honors with the utmost respect and dignity,’’ he said.
While the demand for military honors is increasing, the number of veterans willing and trained for the solemn task is shrinking.
Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Kienow-Hilt Post 1621 also provide military funeral honors under the longtime leadership of Mike Johnson.
“It’s a way of thanking the veterans for their time of service and means something to be there for their families,’’ Johnson said.
Twenty Vietnam Veterans of America members and 14 VFW members are trained and certified through the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs to provide military honors.
Both groups said they could use more veterans to help.
Many older veterans are physically unable to perform military funeral honors, and many younger veterans can’t get time off from work, Johnson said.
“There is always a need to train new people,’’ Engstrom said.
The number of requests for military funeral honors has increased for the Vietnam veteran’s chapter each of the last two years. Members provided military honors at 20 veterans’ funerals in 2009 and 30 in 2010. Now in its third year, the group already has provided military honors for nine funerals this year, Engstrom said.
The VFW averaged 12 military honors funerals a month from 2007 to 2009 and has handled 32 since Nov. 10. The pace in 2011 has slowed, which Johnson attributes to fewer living World War II veterans.
“In December 1946, there were 16.4 million World War II veterans, and as of June 2010, there was only 4.2 million left, who are dying at a rate of 1,000 to 1,5000 a day,’’ he said.
Grateful loved ones
Engstrom and Johnson said families are appreciative every time they’ve been involved in a military funeral.
Engstrom was among the honor guard standing in a row at a recent funeral when the hearse pulled up to the gravesite. Earlier, they had carefully checked each other’s uniforms, inspected rifles and polished the bugle.
After presenting the folded American flag to the departing veteran’s widow, Engstrom turned to the veteran’s young grandson, leaned over and said: “I know you will miss your grandfather a lot, so I would like to give you this coin. When you look at it, you will remember all the good times you had with him. I thank him for serving his country as a soldier and will also remember him.”
As the boy clutched the coin in his little hand, the veteran’s widow took Engstrom’s hand and thanked him.
Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America military honors group collected the shell casings—21 of them—put them in a small red, white and blue bag and gave them to the family.
Janet Degenhardt, Janesville, said her son Troy, who is a Gulf War veteran convinced her to have military honors at the funeral of her late husband, Donald.
“I probably would have never thought of it, and it was such a moving service,’’ Janet said.
Her thank-you note hangs on a bulletin board at the VFW. It reads, in part: “We want to thank VFW Post 1621 Honor Guard for the wonderful ceremony you performed for Donald Degenhardt. It made us very proud of him. What an honor to receive the flag and medal. We will cherish them forever.’’
Linda Colby, Janesville, didn’t hesitate to have the military honors at the funeral of her father, William G. Bullian.
“My Dad loved America and what he fought for. It was an honor and the most precious thing for him to have,” she said.
Johnson said providing the last rites for a veteran always emotionally affects him.
“It’s a solemn ceremony,’’ he said.
Engstrom, a combat veteran, said every veteran deserves a military honors funeral.
“That is the final goodbye from his country.’’