New York Army National Guard provides honors for World War II pilot
Soldiers of the New York National Guard honor guard receive the remains of 1st Lieutenant John Thomas, a World War II Army Air Forces pilot, who was killed in 1943, at the Rose Cemetery in North Rose, New York on May 20, 2023. This was one of 7,100 military funeral the New York Army National Guard's honor guard teams expect to conduct by the end of 2023. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Gunther) (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Matthew Gunther) VIEW ORIGINAL

LATHAM, New York—New York National Guard Soldiers expect to provide military funeral honors for the families of 7,100 veterans by the end of 2023.

Their New York Air National Guard counterparts will serve conduct services for 1,990 families.

These figures are based on funeral tallies as of Dec. 21, and estimates of funerals to be conducted by 1 January 2024.

In 2022, 7,852 veterans were honored by New York Army National Guard Honor Guards. In 2021 the New York Army Guard honor guard teams conducted 8,275 funeral honors services.

Federal law requires the military to provide honors at the funerals of any former members of the U.S. military who were not dishonorably discharged. This includes members of the reserves and National Guard.

Army Guard honor guard’s provide honors for Army veterans, while the Air Guard conducts funeral for Air Force vets.

The New York Army National Guard currently has 39 Soldiers working funeral details full-time and 48 Soldiers who volunteer part-time.

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 Specialist 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,” he said. “It has to be right.”

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 passed away while 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 be tasked to conduct six to ten services daily, Barreto said.

Because funeral directors usually scheduled their graveside events from 11 p.m. to 1 p.m. honors must be conducted other times, he explained.

“I have to call funeral homes that are willing to work with me to do services before the mass,” he said. We are also conducting services late at night at the wake.”

Going from cemetery to cemetery in heavy New York City traffic slows things down even more, Barreto added.

While Barreto’s Soldiers face heavy traffic, Cool’s teams in the Buffalo office face long distances.

“Our area is so large we might have a service in Niagara Falls and another service in Alleghany, a good hour, and a half away,” he 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.”

But the number of military funeral services conducted each year has been declining.

In 2012, New York Army National Guard honor guard teams conducted 10,175 military funerals.

That year there were 885,400 veterans living in New York, according to the website USA Facts in 2022 there were 580, 856 veterans living in New York, down 35 percent from 2012.

According to the Veterans Administration, the number of veterans in New York is dropping at just over 3 percent annually.

The World War II generation, with 16 million veterans, was the largest group of veterans for years. But now, according to the National World War II Museum, only an estimated 119,000 World War II veterans are still living.

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,” he said. “We test the Soldiers ceremonial composure, to make sure if something were to happen during the ceremony, or everybody starts crying, you are prepared.”

Maintaining that “ceremonial 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 seven 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.”

A week before the end of 2023, the New York Army National Guard’s eight honor guard detachments have conducted these services:

• Albany: 651.

• Camp Smith (Hudson Valley):793.

• New York City: 978.

• Long Island: 2,341.

• Buffalo: 857.

• Rochester: 605.

• Binghamton (Southern Tier): 213.

• Syracuse: 508.