Saturday, November 10th, 2007
Giving that final salute to local veterans
By Margie Wuebker
Linda Kuenning of New Bremen plays Taps as a uniformed member of the Minster Vet. . .
MINSTER - Pallbearers carry the flag-draped casket toward a waiting grave at St. Augustine Cemetery as local firing squad personnel stand at attention. The time has come to bid a patriotic farewell to a fallen veteran who served his country during good times and bad.
The Minster Veteran's Firing Squad, attired in official navy blue Air Force uniforms with pristine white helmets, has been at the cemetery for nearly an hour practicing the all-too-familiar ritual - appropriate prayers, rifle volley, Taps, folding of the American flag and its presentation to the family.
Practice makes perfect as seven riflemen deliver three volleys in unison and the appointed flag folders complete the process flawlessly in accordance with exacting military standards.
The squad was formed in the late 1940s with a complement of local World War I veterans as well as recent World War II returnees. Over the years the volunteer unit became less active before returning to prominence in the late 1960s. It currently operates as a separate entity with the 21 members coming from American Legion Post 387 and the William Thieman Jr. Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6432.
"My dad (Louis Hoying Sr.) was active and I joined after getting out of the Army in 1952," Charles "Charlie" Hoying says. "Today our members are veterans of the Korean War and Vietnam Era."
Arthur Drees, the last active World War II member, stepped down six funerals ago at the urging of his comrades.
"He never missed a veteran's funeral," Hoying says. "Art's had some health problems lately and came to the cemetery with an oxygen tank. We suggested the time had come to let younger fellas take over, and he reluctantly agreed."
Hoying, who succeeded longtime commander Tom Feldman in 2001, remembers accompanying fellow squad members to Covington some years ago on a bitterly cold winter day. Sleet fell as mourners huddled beneath a tent, but there was no shelter for rifle bearers preparing to discharge volleys.
"Sleet ran down our helmets and froze on our clothes," he says. "We literally crackled when we moved. Now we have matching black overcoats with removable liners to fend off the cold."
Hoying always brings a tape player to make sure Taps - those 24 notes that unleash deep emotions - echoes across the cemetery if a bugler is not available. On all but one occasion the device remained quietly hidden behind a nearby tombstone.
"We have a primary bugler (Linda Kuenning) and a backup (Larry Coppess)," he says. "There was a mix-up and neither came. I just reached over and flipped the switch; no one seemed to notice but us."
The government provides vintage M1 rifles as well as 30-caliber ammunition for the rites. This represents a significant savings for the group that operates solely on donations to cover the cost of uniforms, cleaning and other incidentals.
Hoying has seen many changes over the years including the switch from khaki uniforms and high-topped combat boots to today's more formal style with each pin and insignia displayed in consistent fashion. He is most proud of the unit's flag-folding contingent under the direction of Jerry Huelsman.
White-gloved hands work carefully, removing the banner from atop the casket and folding the red and white stripes into the star-studded blue field reminiscent of the national motto "In God We Trust."
Huelsman accepts the flag from his comrades and approaches the next of kin, saying "This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation in recognition of dedicated and honorable service to our country. God bless you and your family and God bless the United States of America."
"It can be tough to deliver those words especially when the departed veteran is a neighbor, a former co-worker, a friend or relative," he adds quietly. "You get a lump in your throat the size of a baseball but somehow the words come out."
Hoying agrees, noting there have been times when squadsmen went about their appointed duties totally oblivious to tears on their cheeks.
"We give the last tribute to a fallen brother," he says. "And we hope others will pick up and follow suit when our time comes."
Proper flag folding technique:
Each fold of the flag at the funeral for a departed veteran holds special meaning, according to Jerry Huelsman, a member of the Minster Veteran's Firing Squad.
The first fold: represents life.
Second: belief in eternal life.
Third: honors and remembers the departed veteran who gave part of his or her life defending the country in the interest of world peace.
Fourth: signifies the weaker nature of Americans who sometimes turn away from God in times of war and peace.
Fifth: pays tribute to the nation.
Sixth: alludes to The Pledge of Allegiance.
Seventh: salutes the Armed Forces.
Eighth: hopes that the one entering the valley of death will see the light of day.
Ninth: a tribute to womanhood for their faith, love, loyalty and devotion, having molded the character of men and women who made this country great.
Tenth: a tribute to fathers who give their sons and daughters for the defense of the country.
Eleventh: glory to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen.
Twelfth: an emblem of eternity as well as glorification of God the father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in the eyes of a Christian citizen.
After the flag is completely folded and tucked in, it takes on the appearance of a cocked hat. The design serves as a reminder of soldiers who served under General George Washington, the sailors and marines who served under Captain John Paul Jones and their comrades in the U.S. Armed Forces who preserved the rights, privileges and freedoms enjoyed today.
According to the National American Legion, a flag used for a veteran's funeral should never be flown again or displayed in any other way than in the trifold shape presented to the next of kin. In other words, the folded flag should never be opened again.
- Margie Wuebker