Honor guard still shooting strong

The American Legion Honor Guard in Princeton continues to give 21-gun salutes at the graveside of deceased veterans.

The job requires not only commitment by its 20 members but also maintenance of the honor guard rifles and the stocking of blank cartridges.

The June 2012 monthly newsletter of the Legion post had this comment from Legion post commander Jerry Whitcomb regarding the honor guard’s ammo: “Joe T & I held inventory of our rifles & Joe wrote down all of the serial numbers. We had to get this done first so we could order some ammo…” (Joe T stands for Joe Trunk, commander of the honor guard rifle unit.)

The ammo consists of blank cartridges that have firing caps and gunpowder, but not bullets.

The honor guard has to have enough blanks so that the seven honor guard members who do the shooting can shoot three times at the veteran’s graveside to make what it known as a 21-gun salute.

Sometimes the M-1 rifle blank cartridges misfire, said Trunk, who served in the U.S. Army in 1954-56. Trunk estimated that the blanks misfire about 25 percent of the time. He said the honor guard unit had 200 blank rounds and that he had to order more. “They don’t last very long,” he said.

The honor guard performed at 18 funerals between July 1, 2011, and June 30 this year and its itinerary also includes parades, July 4 fireworks, and Memorial Day services. Besides the honor guard members who fire the shots, there is also one member who barks the commands, one member who holds the U.S. flag and one member who blows taps on the bugle at the end of the gun salute.

The honor guard unit receives a $100 stipend per funeral and it goes into the honor guard’s uniform fund.

Trunk noted that because the honor guard performs at funerals all year round, the members sometimes get cold backsides during winter and sometimes get wet during the summer. One tangible benefit the honor guard gets is a dinner once a year for the members and their spouses.

The honor guard actually becomes known as the Legion’s Color Guard when it performs the duty of marching with flags in parades.

Trunk says he is in the honor guard for the “honor of serving another fallen soldier,” adding: “It’s an honor to be in a dying occupation. It’s hard to get new honor guard members. I’ll go back to my own (military) service. I got all busy raising a family and putting food on the table (when younger) and really didn’t have the time to put in (at an honor guard unit). After you retire you can do this. I am thankful I am able to.”

Most of the honor guard members are senior citizens and Legion post Commander Whitcomb agreed with Trunk about the difficulty in recruiting members to the unit. It’s difficult to be part of the honor guard when holding down a job because the honor guard performs at different times of the week, Whitcomb said. Sometimes the opportunity to join the honor guard is at retirement, and that is what one of the honor guard members, Brad Brown, did when he retired, Whitcomb noted.

The members of the honor guard are “a good dedicated bunch of guys,” Whitcomb said, adding that both he and Trunk have received many favorable comments about the honor guard’s work from family members of deceased veterans. “They think it’s nice,” Whitcomb said about the honor guard’s service at the cemeteries. “They do a good job.”