LATHAM, N.Y. (Dec. 22, 2014) -- New York Army National Guard Soldiers expect to provide military funeral honors for 9,600 families before 2014 comes to an end, at 11.59 p.m. on Dec. 31.
In 2013, New York Army National Guard Honor Guard members performed military funeral services 9,997 times. In 2012, New York Army National Guard Soldiers conducted 10,175 funerals.
The largest number of military funerals conducted in one year was in 2011, when 10,752 military services were provided. The program began in 1999.
As of Dec. 22, the 124 members of the New York Army National Guard Honor Guard had performed 9,362 funeral honors missions.
The New York Air National Guard's six major commands provide funeral honors for Air Force veterans and conduct around 1,500 funeral services annually.
New York Army National Guard teams provide military honors to all Army veterans in order to comply with a 2000 federal law, which mandates military honors at the funerals of any former Service member who was honorably discharged. The New York Army National Guard launched a state financed honor guard program the year before the law passed, and federal dollars became available.
The lower number for Army Guard funeral services in New York appears to be due to the decline in the number of World War II and Korean War-era veterans still living, as well as a cutback in New York Army National Guard funeral missions that resulted from a temporary budget reduction in October 2013, said Staff Sgt. Erwin Dominguez, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the New York Army National Guard's Honor Guard program.
The initial fiscal year 2015 budget for Army National Guard funeral teams would have resulted in reducing the money for New York's program, from about $2 million to $1 million.
Faced with this constraint in money to pay for Soldiers and vehicles the New York National Guard made a decision to reduce the number of funerals done daily across the state from an average of around 27 to 15 or so, said Lt. Col. Robert Epp, the officer-in-charge of the honor guard program.
The New York Army National Guard Honor Guard began referring some requests for military funerals to the Active Army Casualty Assistance Centers at Fort Drum, New York, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, in New Jersey, Epp said. These centers then assigned these missions to Army Reserve units, or active-Army elements at Fort Drum, the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and at Fort Dix, he explained.
Some of New York's eight regional honor guard offices were closed to help conserve money, he said.
In November, the Army committed to making more money available for Army Guard funeral honors team and New York's team began ramping up services again.
However, the New York Army National Guard Honor Guard team will no longer provide honors for members of the others services, Epp said. The Army and National Guard Bureau reiterated that the Department of the Army funding is to be used for Army veteran services, Epp explained.
The other services have the primary responsibility for serving the families of their veterans.
"In the past we would do services for the veterans of other services if we were able to," Epp explained.
Federal law 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.
The New York Army National Guard Honor Guard employs 27 Soldiers on a full-time basis, to man the funeral details and calls upon 97 other Soldiers on an as-needed basis to help, Dominguez said. They operate from eight regional offices.
"It's a privilege to represent the Army and honor those who have served before us," said Spc. Anthony Bryant, an honor guard member assigned to D Company, 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation. "We take great pride in being able to give our veterans their final salute."
At least two members of the armed forces must be present for the ceremony. The New York Army National Guard Honor Guard normally sends two Soldiers to fold the flag and play Taps, Dominguez said.
The federal law requires that at least one of the Service members at a veteran's funeral must be from the deceased veteran's service.
Veterans who served for twenty-years or more and retired from the military, those who received certain medals for heroism for their service, general officers, and Soldiers who have died in combat receive more elaborate services.
A veteran in this category of "full military honors" can receive a nine-member detail, which provides pallbearers who can also serve as the firing party for a final three-volley salute with rifles loaded with blanks, a bugler, and Soldiers to fold the flag and present it to the next of kin, according to Army regulations.
More members can be added to the funeral detail, which includes a military chaplain and separate pall-bearers and firing party if available.
This is normally done for the funeral of a Service member killed in action.
This year the New York Army National Guard Honor Guard teams conducted 63 Modified Full Honors funerals, which include six pallbears, a non-commissioned officer in charge, and a bugler.
Among those funerals were two for Soldiers who died during the Korean War and whose remains were brought home to New York, in 2014. The remains of Sgt. Michael James Barra, who died in a North Korean prison camp in 1951, were buried in Ithaca, New York, on Nov. 22; while the remains of Master Sgt. Lawrence Jock, who went missing in 1953, and was declared dead in 1954, were interred in Malone, New York, on Aug. 1.
The New York Army National Guard Honor Guard has been performing around 10,000 funerals annually since the federal law in 2000 mandating military funerals for veterans.
New York is home to 943,000 veterans, according to the most recent Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, from late 2012. Of those veterans, more than 300,000 are age 65 and older.
The New York Army National Guard Military Forces Honor Guard was launched in 1999, as a state-funded effort. Since 2000, the federal government has funded the program, with some state financial support in the past.
All honor guard members must go through a five-day training program in drill and ceremonies to qualify as honor guard members. The New York Army National Guard normally conducts two of these training sessions annually.
While funds for the New York Army National Guard Honor Guard may be tight, there is no intention to reduce the length of the honor guard training school. Dominguez said.
"Our funds may drop but our standards won't," Dominguez said.
The five-day instruction program allows the Soldiers to learn how to conduct more types of funerals, Dominguez explained.
The New York Army National Guard Honor Guard is also willing to provide training to other Army components, Dominguez said. A team from the honor guard recently conducted training for Army Reserve Soldiers of the 1018th Quartermaster Company, in Schenectady, New York, he said.
Funeral home directors are responsible for contacting one of the honor guard's local offices when a deceased veteran's family requests military funeral honors. Families are asked to provide proof of the deceased service, normally the Department of Defense Form 214 (known as a DD214) which Service members receive when they leave the military, or an honorable or general discharge certificate.
If the New York Army National Guard Honor Guard cannot handle the mission it may be referred to the Fort Drum or Fort Dix Casualty Assistance Centers.
Military Funeral services provided by New York Military Forces Honor Guard regional Offices for 2014 as of 22 December:
• Long Island - 3,433
• Bronx - 1,519
• Capital Region - 732
• Rochester - 716
• Buffalo - 1,155
• Horseheads - 535
• Syracuse - 738
• Hudson Valley - 534