Michael Rigert – NORTH COUNTY STAFF
On any given day, a dozen or so men clad in field caps and navy-blue jackets and bearing World War II-era M1 Garand rifles may be called up to serve.
They’re not acting as military history re-enactors or part of some new Homeland Security defense force, but rather, they are U.S. armed forces veterans performing military rites at the funeral of a veteran.
George Van De Water of Orem is a former commander of Orem’s American Legion Post 72, which has just more than 100 dues-paying members. He served aboard the Navy battleship Iowa off the coast of Korea during the Korean War as part of a Marine contingent.
The post’s members are mostly veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, with very few living World War II servicemen left. Van De Water said one of their solemn duties is performing military rites, which include a legion chaplain, a flag presentation to the veteran’s next of kin, three rifle volleys fired off by an honor guard of typically seven men, and a bugler playing “Taps.”
The military funeral honors are provided to any honorably discharged U.S. military veteran at the request of his or her family. There is no charge, and the Orem post covers such requests for most of northern Utah County.
“There is no cost,” Van De Water said. “This is something we do because we feel each of these veterans deserves to be recognized.”
Norm Rohr, a member of the Orem-based American Legion post, currently serves as the chapter’s post adjutant. He served during the Korean War aboard the Navy aircraft carrier USS Princeton as part of a five-man crew assigned to a F6F Hellcat fighter plane.
One of Rohr’s many responsibilities with the Legion is to coordinate the assignments of requested military funeral honors. He said the Orem post performed military rites at 86 veterans’ funerals last year, and 94 the year before that. Though he’s only been in the Legion for five years, he believes the number of veterans funerals they’ve participated in is steadily on the increase.
“We average two per week,” Rohr said. “Our veterans are dying left and right.”
On Tuesday, Rohr and a compliment of Legion members stood in the snow at the Orem City Cemetery as part of an honor guard at the funeral of Korean War veteran Wayne Vance Gygi. Though it requires the dedication of the 30 members who routinely participate in the honor guards from week to week, every Legion member considers the service a form of solemn duty of brotherhood, Van De Water and Rohr said.
“We look at it as an honor,” Rohr said. “These guys are veterans and they deserve the best.”
And though the Legion keeps busy with many other activities including sponsoring local high-school students at Boys and Girls State through a speech contest, giving patriotic presentations at Orem schools, and placing crosses on veterans’ graves on Memorial Day, they know what it means to veterans’ families to extend the graveside services.
“It always happens. Part of the family and friends of the veteran will come up to several of us afterward and thank us, say how impressed they were, say how grateful they are,” Rohr said. “That makes it worthwhile right there as far as I’m concerned.”
Van De Water, who spent a combined 24 years in the Marines and the Army, agrees.
“As many times as I’ve done that I still feel tears when ‘Taps’ is played,” he said.
“People often mention we’re heroes when we perform an honor guard at funerals. My sense is, the heroes are the ones who didn’t come back, and we honor them by honoring these fallen heroes,” Van De Water said.