By Eric Durr, New York State Division of Military and Naval AffairsDecember 21, 2017
LATHAM, N.Y. - The New York Army National Guard Honor Guard expects to have conducted military honors at the interments of 9,030 New York veterans during 2017, by the time the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve.
Those honored range from 19-year old New York Army National Guard Specialist Joseph Nelk from Pittsford, N.Y, who died from apparent natural causes on Dec. 10 to 87 year-old Lawrence Ostwald of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. who served in the Army during the Korean War and died on Dec. 11.
This number is down from the 10,085 military funeral services the New York Army National Guard provided during 2016.
The decline in numbers of funerals appears to be because of the aging and passing of World War II veterans, said Peter Moran, the New York State Military Funeral coordinator. Anecdotally it appears that the peak of World War II veteran deaths due to old age has passed and there are fewer of those veterans left, he explained.
As of Dec. 20 the New York Army National Guard Honor Guard had conducted 8,707 military funeral services. The teams expect to conduct another 330 by New Year's Eve, according to Moran.
The New York Air National Guard, which provides military funeral services primarily for Air Force and Army Air Forces veterans from five bases and the Eastern Air Defense Sector, expects to execute 2,140 military funerals by the end of 2017.
With 731,241 veterans living in New York in 2016, according to the Veterans Administration, the New York National Guard handles more military funeral details than most other states, Moran said.
California with 1.7 million veterans is the state that usually matches New York for the number of funerals conducted, Moran said. In fiscal year 2017, which ran from October 2016 to the end of September 2017, New York conducted 9,201 missions while California's Army Guard handled 8,962, Moran said.
Providing military honors at funerals is an important duty that requires tremendous attention to detail and training, said Staff Sgt. Tomas Couvertier, a Bronx, N.Y. resident and the non-commissioned officer in charge of New York's Honor Guard program.
The New York Army National Guard has 32 Soldiers working full-time in the Honor Guard program and 107 part-time Soldiers who fill in when required.
Whether they do it full-time or part-time, all members of the Honor Guard go through a training program to teach them the precise movements required, Couvertier said.
The training not only helps a Soldier do a better job of conducting funerals, but the things they learn also make them better Soldiers overall, he added.
"There is a great deal of pride in representing the military in these last events," he said. "The families are always very appreciative. They always say thank you. Sometimes they want to hug you."
Since 2000, federal law has mandated that any military veteran who did not receive a dishonorable discharge from the armed forces is eligible for military honors at his or her funeral.
The ceremony must include the folding and presenting of the flag of the United States to the veteran's survivors and the playing of Taps.
Because of the demand for funeral services, the Army authorizes the use of an electronic bugle. The Soldier raises a bugle to his lips and pushes a button and an electronic device plays Taps.
The size of the detail varies from a minimum of two service members to nine or more personnel for deceased service members who retired from the military after a full career or were awarded medals for valor.
At least one of the honor guard members must belong to the service the deceased service member had served in.
The New York Army National Guard provides military services from eight offices located across New York.
Three offices serve the population of New York City and Long Island while also providing services in the lower Hudson Valley. By the end of 2017 the Long Island, Queens and Bronx locations expect to conduct 5,254 services, according to Moran.
The New York National Guard's Albany-area office will conduct 888 funerals, while the offices in Syracuse and Rochester will provide services 592 and 659 times, respectively.
The Buffalo Honor Guard anticipates performing 1,115 military funerals by New Year's Eve, while an office in the town of Horseheads, which serves New York's southern tier of counties, will provide services 529 times.
The Active Army and Army Reserve also provide military honors.
The 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum conducts military funerals within 50 miles of the post. The U.S. Army Reserve's 99th Army Reserve Command and the United States Military Academy at West Point also perform military funerals when requested by the Army casualty assistance center at Joint Base Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst.
Along with providing funeral honors for veterans, the New York National Guard Honor Guard also conducts dignified transfer ceremonies during which the remains of Soldiers who died overseas are brought home.
These can be for current Soldiers like Army Guard Spec. Joseph Nelk, from Pittsford, N.Y., or Sgt. Roshain Brooks, a member of the 82nd Airborne from Brooklyn, who was killed in Iraq in August, 2017.
Or it can be for the remains of Soldiers from prior wars, like those of Lt. Robert Mains, a World War II pilot who died in 1945, and whose remains were returned to Long Island on November 30, 2017 and met by a New York Army National Guard Honor Guard led by Couvertier.
The bulk of the missions conducted by the New York National Guard involve the basic two Soldier package, Couvertier said. Providing modified full honors, which requires nine Soldiers, means not covering other funerals, he explained.
Soldiers who conduct the Honor Guard missions know that what they do is important for families and the Army, said Couvertier, who estimates he has conducted 2,000 funerals since 2008.
When I'm up there in front of everybody I don't think necessarily about what I have to do next, I think about how much of an honor it is to stand before these families and render the final honors for their loved ones, "said Sgt. Ramon Rodriguez, an Honor Guard member from Stillwater, N.Y.