VFW Post 1599 honor guard pays tribute to veterans

November 10, 2003|by DON AINES

MONT ALTO, Pa. - It was a small ceremony in a small town, with the honor guard nearly outnumbering the public Sunday, but the veterans who make up the ceremonial unit rarely turn down a chance to pay tribute to those who have served in the nation's armed forces and show up for every funeral at which their services are requested.

This year, Charles Nitterhouse VFW Post 1599 has fired the final salutes and played "Taps" at the funerals of 118 wartime veterans, according to Bob Harris, the post commander and director of the Franklin County Office of Veterans Affairs.

"They never let down the family of a fallen veteran when called," Harris said during the small Veterans Day ceremony at the World War Memorial in Mont Alto. About 15 other people attended the brief ceremony, held two days before Veterans Day's actual date.


"This usually works out best," Borough Councilman Doug Duffey said of the Sunday ceremony. "The honor guard is usually tied up on Veterans Day."

On Tuesday morning, the guard is scheduled to take part in the parade in Chambersburg and in an afternoon ceremony at Letterkenny Army Depot, according to George Gearhart, commander of the guard. In addition to veterans' funerals, he said the unit takes part in 20 or more ceremonial events throughout the year, including Independence Day and Memorial Day events.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are 26.4 million veterans in the nation and just like them, the members of the honor guard are not getting any younger. Harris said the median age of America's veterans is 57, and 37 percent are 65 years of age or older.

"I'd say the average age is hitting 68," Gearhart said of the honor guard, which numbers about 30 volunteers from the Chambersburg post. He said the youngest is probably in his late 30s, while the oldest is 86-year-old Paul Kriner of Chambersburg.

"We have some weekend warriors," according to Gearhart, who said some members still work and only are available for weekend ceremonies and funerals. "It takes up a lot of time."

Those who were there Sunday represented a total of more than 60 years of honor guard experience, the longest serving being Don Peron of Chambersburg with 18 years.

Most of the funerals the guard attends are in Franklin County, but sometimes the unit finds itself crossing county lines to perform the last rites of a military veteran, a duty that falls increasingly on veterans organizations.

Bill Knarr of Chambersburg is among the unit's three buglers. Unlike other members of the guard, he was not in uniform, saying he prefers to be as low-key as possible at ceremonies and funerals, wanting people to think about the music rather than who is playing.

"When I moved here six years ago, I never dreamed I'd run into a group like this. A group of people so dedicated," Knarr said. He said he has been disappointed by Veterans Day turnouts in recent years in Chambersburg, but other members noted that many people still have to work despite it being an official government holiday.

Of the 1.3 million veterans in Pennsylvania, 12,900 live in Franklin County, according to Harris, a Mont Alto resident. With that many veterans, Harris said there always will be a demand for the services of the honor guard.

Filling the ranks of the aging unit may be the bigger challenge, he said.

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