Ted Pace served his country during World War II. Now 81, he and 21 other veterans are serving more than ever.
Four years ago, Pace, a member of American Legion Post 760 in Pittsburgh, saw a problem. With Second World War veterans dying in increasing numbers, he felt more needed to be done during their funerals to recognize their military service.
Though Congress mandated in 1999 that two active duty servicemen be available to participate in veterans' funerals, Pace wanted to do more. He established a full-fledged Honor Guard, recruiting from his post, as well as VFW Post 6664 located a few miles away. Soon, 22 fellows had signed on, veterans who served in WW II, Korea and Vietnam, veterans who were eager to serve again.
This band of brothers now participates in more than 270 funerals a year sometimes five days a week, sometimes twice a day. They've performed services in the mud in pouring rain. They've performed during blizzards and sub-zero temperatures.
Ask any of them why they do it and you'll get the same reply: It is their great honor to serve. Their service is all the more remarkable when you consider two-thirds of them are between 75 and 89 years old.
I met these incredible fellows a year ago when my Uncle Jimmy, a Vietnam veteran, was laid to rest. When I arrived, I found them standing at attention. Their shoulders were square, their uniforms perfectly tailored, their shoes and buttons expertly polished. They carried on as though my uncle had been a general.
They saluted Jimmy when we carried his casket from the hearse into the chapel. With great precision and clarity, the chaplain, 89-year-old Gene Frediani, recited a version of a soldier's prayer:
It is the soldier who has given us all our freedoms. It's the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It's the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It's the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to object. It's the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It's the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves under that flag and whose coffin is draped under that beautiful flag, who has given us the freedom to comfortably sit in our living rooms each evening with our loved ones.
Our dear comrade, Jimmy Hartner, we bid you farewell and we express our great gratitude for the part you played in ensuring us that we may always continue to have all these wonderful freedoms.
The chaplain said another prayer. Then, in perfect unity, seven riflemen fired three shots. The bugler performed “Taps.” The chaplain took three bullet casings from his pocket casings he had buffed and polished at home and held them up.
“These three spent cartridges represent Jimmy Hartner's rifle salute. They are symbols of duty, honor and love of country.”
He placed the cartridges into the flag, which two active-duty servicemen took great pains to fold expertly. They handed it to my Aunt Celie and thanked her, on behalf of America, for Jimmy's service. It was a powerful display that left a roomful of people in tears.
It's impossible to be cynical in the presence of these Honor Guard men. In a free society, there should be debate about when to take up arms, but there is no debate about the men and women who serve.
Such respect was denied my Uncle Jimmy when he returned from Vietnam. He never talked about his service and it soon became a part of his forgotten past. But as we laid him to rest, his sacrifice was powerfully remembered and celebrated thanks to 22 remarkable men.
This Memorial Day, as we remember those who gave their lives in service to their country, let's also remember those who continue to serve, including 22 Honor Guard volunteers, who are ensuring that others receive the honor, dignity and respect that they deserve.