Veterans groups around the region are struggling to provide honor guards for veterans’ funeral services because of decreasing membership.
Oftentimes, veteran service organizations provide honor guards when reserve units can’t because of the lack of active duty bases in the area. A reserve unit may send two members to fold the flag for the family, but a local service organization will provide the rifle salute and pallbearers for a full military detail.
Even the Patriot Guard, an organization that holds a flag line at funerals and escorts remains to cemeteries, is struggling with declining membership.
Kevin Dill, formerly a Veterans Affairs executive director, knows about the need.
“When I was the VA director I would get calls all the time, ‘Hey dad died, grandpa died, how do we get an honor guard detail at the funeral?’ I would always tell them to call the funeral home,” Dill told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. “I didn’t realize until once I was out here talking to these guys there’s going to be a time when the funeral home will have nobody to call, because the average age of honor guard members is in their 70s and 80s.”
Many service organizations don’t have the money to staff honor guards either, Dill said.
He wants to reach out to veterans who have a service-connected disability or are retired to help when they can.
“Otherwise there’s going to be a day that’s going to come when these guys who pass away, who deserve that honor — they’ve earned it — are not going to be able to have it because the guys that are doing it now are going to get too old or they’re going pass away,” Dill said. “That honor may not happen sometime down the road because we as a community and the younger veterans have forgotten.”
Dill predicts in 10 years there won’t be enough people around to perform honor guards properly.
“The same thing is happening to our numbers,” said Tim Houts, Patriot Guard ride captain. “We have about five or six in Northeast Iowa that come, that includes Waterloo and Cedar Falls.”
Houts said sometimes he won’t know if anyone is going to show up for a funeral.
“We’ve been down to four, to three for a funeral, and that’s tough. Especially in winter when people don’t want to go outside,” Houts said.
People can donate their time or money to help with honor guards in the Cedar Valley. The Cedar Falls AMVETS has an honor guard, and many other veteran service organizations do also.
“It’s a problem all over,” said Marvin Mattfeld of Cedar Falls AMVETS. “A lot of younger guys don’t want to become members of a veteran service organization.”
The Cedar Falls AMVETS does 60 to 70 funerals a year.
“We cover some of the small communities around (the area),” Mattfeld said. There are 21 AMVETS members who take part in funeral honor guards.
“These guys, they’re in their 70s and 80s,” Dill said. The youngest are in their 60s.
Anyone who wants to get involved or donate can contact Dill at (309) 738-8684 to donate or get involved with any veteran service post. To get involved with the Patriot Guard, visit patriotguard.org and sign up. The only requirement is a want to help and respect for the American flag, Hout said.
“Ten years from now a widow will call the local VA to set up an honor guard for her husband’s funeral, and there won’t be anyone available because no one else has stepped up,” Dill said. “If we truly care about our veterans then our younger veterans need to get involved and just come out and stand for a couple of hours. Otherwise, in 10 years some family’s going to call and there isn’t going to be a detail.”