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BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — A simple flag lay over their caskets. The playing of “Taps.” A gun salute.

These are the honors a veteran can receive when he/she is laid to rest. The rituals are performed by an Honor Guard, but whether they will continue in the future is questionable.

If an active military guard is unable to perform the service, volunteers sometimes step in.

In Fayette County, since the mid-1980s those volunteers have been the Honor Guard of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 3110.

Honor Guard Commander Russell Compton said when he joined around 2000, the Honor Guard had 17 members who volunteered at about 150 funerals a year.

Now the group is down to five members, all more than 65 years of age, who perform at least 40 funerals a year from Ansted and Beckley.

With the decline in Honor Guard members, the service sometimes suffers.

While all members attempt to make each funeral, if only three members are able, then it’s not possible to perform the gun salute.

“I always have enough men to send three men out there, one to play ‘Taps’ and two to fold the flag,” Compton said.

While Compton is hopeful that the group will remain active, fellow member Bill Brizendine is not so sure.

“We’re going to keep doing it as long as we can,” Brizendine said. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be doing it because the two oldest members, myself and another man, we’re 74.”

When Brizendine joined the group 10 years ago, there were 13 members.

“Some died off. Some had health problems. A couple quit and now we’re down to the last two of the old group,” the Air Force veteran said.

Although the members may be up in age and few in number, their dedication is evident.

They themselves provide the uniforms, the cost of travel and their service free of charge for the veterans, whom they hold in great honor.

“We’re honored to do it,” Brizendine said. “I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can.”

With some estimates of 1,500 veterans dying per day, the need for an honor guard is evident and while the need is there, the response from the military hasn’t matched it.

“They’ve cut so much in the Army and other branches, they only send two men,” Brizendine said. “The only time they have a full firing squad is a very highly decorated soldier or sailor, or a high-ranking guy like a general or full-bird colonel.”

Susan Craun has seen first-hand the difficulty in getting the different military branches to attend services.

Craun, who works at High Lawn Funeral Chapel and Memorial Park in Oak Hill, said lower-rank enlisted veterans seldom get more than a flag presentation if requested.

When a veteran dies, Craun must scramble to try to get a faraway service branch to respond. In the case of the Navy, she has to fax a form to the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia, follow up with a phone call and then hope that they can assign someone to a funeral.

The High Lawn employee said she has been blown away by the dedication of the Post 3110 Honor Guard.

“These guys all have to do this out of the goodness of their heart,” Craun said.

High Lawn, Fayette County’s largest cemetery, is home to the graves of 1,900 veterans, from the Civil War all the way through to Iraq.

According to Craun, every year for Memorial Day the cemetery puts out flags on the graves of every veteran and there seems to be a constant: the Honor Guard of Post 3110.

“They’re here at 7 o’clock in the morning putting flags out here for us — 1,900 flags,” Craun said. “Then they go to Huse (cemetery) and put out more. It’s these same guys that have these patriotic hearts, that are not only doing the Honor Guard but are doing the flags, doing the wreaths and doing what they can for their country. They’re amazing.”

While thankful for the Honor Guard, Craun is fearful that it will not exist much longer, citing a lack of interest from the younger generations, even the younger generation of veterans including her own son.

“They did their thing, but now they’re going on with life,” she said. “They don’t get together with their comrades or they’re busy doing sports, they’re busy raising kids, they’re busy working for a living and they don’t get involved in these organizations like they used to.”

While blaming life for the younger generation of veterans’ lack of interest, Craun believes the general population now has a disconnect from veterans.

Craun said that in the past, with larger wars like World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and the draft, the majority of Americans had friends or family who served.

With today’s smaller wars and a small volunteer force, Craun said that connection has been broken.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take to get us back to being patriotic like we used to be,” Craun said.

Brizendine said he will personally continue in the Honor Guard as long as he can.

“Any man that put that uniform on and raised his hand, swore an allegiance to fight for his country, I will stand there and do what I have to do to honor him,” Brizendine said.

The honor isn’t lost on Compton either.

“It means the world,” he said. “It’s a terrible, sad situation but when you see the family come out and individually thank you and they’ve got tears in their eyes, it just melts my heart to be able to do that for them.”

While the Honor Guard commander is hopeful that the group can survive, he said they may have to switch affiliations.

While the Honor Guard is threatened by lack of manpower, the VFW Post is as well, Compton said.

He is also a member of the American Legion Post in Fayetteville, and he said there have been talks of moving the Honor Guard over to the Legion’s roster.

While that move may provide a more permanent home for the Honor Guard, Compton said there still has to be increased interest, especially from a younger generation.

“I really hope it will continue,” he said. “I would like to see some young men step up and take over and continue on down the road.”

According to Compton, any honorably discharged veteran can become a member of the Honor Guard even if he or she is not a member of the VFW.

Those seeking more information on how to join can contact any local cemetery and ask the cemetery workers to reach out to Russell Compton.

The Honor Guard is made up of Russell Compton, Bill Brizendine, Joe Wriston, Chuck DeLano and Terry Groves.


Information from: The Register-Herald,