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Ranks of area honor guards growing thin

November 15, 1998|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - John S. "Johnny" Miller died of a massive heart attack last Sunday.

The 78-year-old decorated World War II Army combat engineer was buried on Thursday with full military honors in Lincoln Cemetery in Chambersburg.

Miller earned five battle stars in the fighting across Europe, said Charles Burkentine, his neighbor and friend who also is executor of his estate.

"He always told me that he wanted a military funeral," Burkentine said.

But such ceremonies are becoming a threatened tradition as more and more veterans pass on, according to volunteers who serve in the honor guards.

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World War II veterans are hitting their late 70s and beyond. They are dying at the rate of about 1,500 a day. That means an increasing demand for military funerals by honor guards manned by the same aging vets.

Members of the Charles Nitterhouse Post 1599 VFW's honor guard in Chambersburg, the group that buried Miller, said they don't know how much longer they can continue in the face of increasing demand for military funerals.

Sixty percent of the 32-member honor guard are in their late 70s. Last year the unit did 79 funerals. So far this year, they've done 68. The unit does most of the military funerals in Franklin County.

"We talk about it at our meetings, but all we can do is try to recruit new members," said Raymond Laubs, 73, who fought in Europe with the 69th Division. He has been a member of the honor guard since it started in 1947. He said he has helped to bury 19 of its members over the years.

"It's hard to motivate younger people to volunteer for something they won't get paid for," said Russell Bender, 74, who served as a B-17 tail gunner over Europe.

It takes time to attend funerals, so most honor guard members are retired, said Allen E. Melius, 62, a Vietnam War vet and honor guard commander. He said the post wants to recruit more Vietnam War veterans, but many of them are still in their in their 50s and still working.

The Chambersburg unit did recruit Barbara Wise, 68, an Army nurse who served in the Korean War.

The American Legion Post in Chambersburg had its own honor guard until two years ago, when it had to give it up for lack of volunteers, Melius said. The local AMVETS post tried to start a unit several years ago but couldn't find volunteers, he said.

"It's all falling on our shoulders. I guess we'll keep going as long as we can," Melius said.

Some veterans groups pool volunteers to form a single active honor guard.

In Martinsburg, W.Va., VFW and American Legion posts combined forces to form a single honor guard. Last year it officiated at 180 funerals in the Eastern Panhandle.

"We have 12 members in our pool. When I joined in 1991 it had 36," said Charles White, 51, a Vietnam War vet and commander of Newton D. Baker VFW Post 896 in Martinsburg.

"I don't know what's going to happen. There are times when we've been out with four guys - three with rifles and one with the flag. All we can do is try to build it up as best as we can," White said.

"We try to recruit them as they come through the door," said Wayne Cole, 36, a Navy veteran who served in Grenada in 1983. Cole is the unit's youngest member.

Robert Refsnider, 74, earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with the 83rd Thunderbolt Division in Europe. He said he volunteers for most funerals.

"The time's going to come when there won't be enough honor guards left to bury the last of them," he said.

Francis Kolb, 73, served in a graves registration team in Europe during the war. He's still burying veterans today as commander of the Martinsburg honor guard.

"It looks like the time is coming when we can no longer do funerals, and it will be at a time when we're needed the most," he said.

The Morris Frock Post 42 American Legion in Hagerstown does most of the military funerals in Washington County, said Milton Rider, commander of its honor guard. "We did 72 so far this year," he said.

His unit has about 30 men, most of them retired and many not in good health. "I'm afraid to guess what's going to happen. We don't have enough young members. We'll just do what we can do," he said.

The honor guard at Post 10, AMVETS on Frederick Avenue in Hagerstown also does military funerals. It recruits honor guard members from its ladies auxiliary.

Requests for military honors come from funeral directors and cemeteries.

A spokesman at Minnich Funeral Home on Wilson Boulevard in Hagerstown said veterans groups are always available, but finding a regular military unit has become very difficult since Fort Ritchie closed.

"The last one I did I had to make about 20 phone calls just to find somebody to fold the flag," he said.

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