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Honor Guard serves, but faces challenges

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Members of the Fond du Lac Honor Guard at a recent funeral4 / 6
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Members of the Cloquet Combined Honor Guard come to attention, stand still and wait for the next command.

“Port arms!”

At this command, members ready their rifles.

At the words “half left,” the Honor Guard members point their rifles towards the sky.

“Ready, aim, fire!”

The guns boom throughout the burial service as they are fired.

At any military funeral, the guns (either three, five or seven of them) are fired three times each, to honor the deceased veteran.

Afterward, the men will present arms and salute the flag, and the bugler plays taps. The flags are held high by honor guard members as the somber song echoes through the ears of every attendee.

When the last note has faded, the men “order arms” and “parade rest,” their hands hidden behind their back as they stand completely still. The flag is then folded and presented to the family, and the honor guard once again comes to attention, and is then dismissed.

Every veteran deserves to be commemorated with a proper military funeral, and the honor guard is an integral part of that.

“It’s an honor to serve the deceased veterans,” said Cloquet Combined Honor Guard member Marc Raihala. “And they deserve that honor because they gave part of their life for this country in a matter of years, [while] some people have never given anything for this country.”

There are several local groups that are responsible for paying military last respects to fallen soldiers in the area, along with other duties.

The groups in northern Carlton County include the Carlton Honor Guard, the Cloquet Combined Honor Guard and the Fond du Lac Honor Guard.

“We used to be individual,” said Cloquet American Legion Honor Guard Captain Leo Grochow, referring to the Cloquet Combined Honor Guard, made up of members from both the Carl Anderson American Legion Post 262 and Hebert-Kennedy Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3979. “But we work better combined.”

In southern Carlton County, Moose Lake has an honor guard as well.

“It’s our honor to respect veterans who have given their life, or put their life on the line, to protect this country, and it’s our honor to make sure they go with honors,” said Richard Chasse, honor guard captain for the Cloquet VFW.

Military funerals are free of charge, although donations are often given to the honor guard to help with costs.

Although the honor guard receives public support, they still struggle. One problem honor guards across the region face is the reality of aging membership. Oftentimes, members want to serve but are physically unable to, which creates a dilemma. While some younger people are willing to step up, many in the younger generations are just too busy.

“The majority of us are over 85,” said Grochow, who is 87 years old and has been part of the honor guard since 1990. “We can’t seem to get enough [young people] fast enough. But we manage to get at least six to eight [honor guard members] at every funeral.”

“Every military [group] has that problem,” said Carlton Honor Guard Captain Philip Anderson. “But a lot of people [in Carlton] have stepped up. Now, the next group [to serve] is Vietnam era.”

The Cloquet Combined Honor Guard is grappling with the same aging problem, but they’ve also come up with new ways to gain members.

“We are trying to recruit more members using the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and we invited them to be a member of our honor guard as well,” said Chasse. “A few of them accepted; we just need to get them uniforms.”

Another obstacle, according to Carlton member Alan McCallie, is the drop of members during the colder months.

“One of our problems in Carlton is that at least a third of our members are snowbirds so our numbers really drop in winter,” he said.

The honor guard does more than just funerals.

“We do flag services in schools, such as Flag Day,” Anderson said. “And on Memorial Day, we have eight services before noon.”

Honor guards also lead various local parades, carrying flags and rifles as they march down the street. The Cloquet group also holds fundraisers and monthly meetings.

Members of the Cloquet Combined Honor Guard easily agree upon their favorite event:

“[The school patrol] pizza party,” said Grochow, with other members laughing in agreement.

“We like doing children's events,” Chasse added. “The last one we did was the Special Olympics.”

How does a former veteran get into the honor guard?
“Show an interest and ask a question,” said Anderson. “And show a commitment.”
The commitment part is crucial, as just one of the uniforms costs up to $2,000. Each uniform is custom-fit for its wearer, which explains the heavy price tag. This cost is covered through various fundraisers.

Potential members are also required to show their DD214, which is an overview of everything they have done in the military. This is to ensure that they had an honorable discharge, which is required.

When the day is done, and the honors are given, the Cloquet Combined Honor Guard is also a group of veterans who love to joke around when they’re not in the spotlight, somewhat unexpectedly, given the seriousness of their formal duties.

“When do we start wearing ties again?” George Uecker asked at the Cloquet VFW earlier this summer, with the others noting that it wouldn’t be until after Labor day. “I couldn’t remember:, not yet.”

“I’m glad to see you remembered to come,” Grochow joked.

For now, it’s unclear if the honor guard will continue to serve after the current group is finished.

“One day it’s gonna fall right down,” Grochow said. “There’s ones willing to step up, but many of them can’t get off work.”

Grochow explained that when he was younger, it was easier to leave work for honor guard duties than it is today.

“If we can’t get the people, it will go by the wayside,” he said.

However, Chasse remains determined that the honor guard will continue to serve.

“I think we’ll keep going for awhile,” he said. “We might not have as many show up, and I might be the only one out there doing everything, but we will make sure that our veterans get a proper funeral.”