LATHAM, New York - New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen expect to provide military funeral honors for the families of over 9,000 veterans by the end of 2023.
Federal law requires the military to provide honors at the funerals of any former members of the U.S. military not dishonorably discharged, including members of the Reserves and National Guard.
Army Guard honor guards will provide honors for 7,100 Army veterans this year, while the Air Guard conducts funerals for 1,990 Air Force vets.
The New York Army National Guard has 39 Soldiers working funeral details full time and 48 Soldiers who volunteer part time. The New York Air National Guard has 22 Airmen with a full-time funeral honors mission and 68 volunteers.
Soldiers on the details are trained to ensure that everything they do meets exacting standards. These range from the uniforms they wear, to the way they fold the flag presented to families.
Honor guard members take these standards seriously, according to Spc. Mason Cool, who oversees the Army Guard honors detail in Buffalo.
“We do a lot of rigorous training,” he said. “We are the last visual representation of the Army the family gets, to bring closure and to see that final figure. It has to be right.”
Air National Guard Chief Master Sgt. James Jarmacz, who heads the 174th Attack Wing honor guard at Hancock Air National Base in Syracuse, concurs.
“This may be the only military that some of these family members see,” Jarmacz said. “They see our team out there honoring their family member.”
By law, every veteran is guaranteed a two-person funeral detail.
Mandated honors include folding a flag and presenting it to the family. While one detail member presents the flag, the other plays taps on an electronic bugle.
Retired military personnel and those who died on active duty are entitled to honors that involve as many as nine or more Soldiers. These can include a rifle-firing party and pallbearers.
Ideally, honors are conducted at the gravesite, but honor guards must be flexible, said Army Guard Sgt. Edwin Barreto, who oversees the Army Guard teams in New York City.
His detachment, which provides honors around 1,000 times a year, can conduct six to 10 services a day, Barreto said.
Despite what can be long hours, and a lot of driving, the honor guard Soldiers love what they do, Cool said.
“I have really grown to love this program,” he said. “It is very rewarding.”
Along with training to look good and perform the movements of a military funeral meticulously, honor guard Soldiers are trained to deal with the emotions of the events, Cool said.
“When taps start playing and we present the flag the family is typically crying,” Cool said. “We prepare for moments like that.”
Maintaining composure is not always easy, Barreto said.
“I tell the Soldiers not to choke, but I choke sometimes, especially when you have to give the flag to a very young child,” Barreto said. “I have had to give it to a 7-year-old. It’s difficult.”
On one mission, where remains were being transferred at an airport, it was very tough to keep his composure, Barreto recalled.
“Coming from the plane, the mother just dropped to the floor,” he recalled. “Sometimes it just gets the best of you. We are all human after all and sometimes it just gets the best of you.”