It's 12:45 p.m., and Jose "Mike" Gonsalves, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10209 honor guard, calls the members of his squad over for last-minute instructions for the final farewell they are about to pay to a fellow veteran. In a low voice, Gonsalves explains that the ceremony will be simple — a prayer, plus a few personal words about Lee F. Timm, a Spring Hill Navy veteran who served in Vietnam and who died Oct. 31 at age 64 after a long illness. Afterward, they will assemble outside for a traditional rifle salute. The nine members of the all-volunteer squad have performed this ritual dozens of times. They all know their responsibilities. But the work is never routine to them. "It's something of a sacred act to us," said Gonsalves, 63. "We're performing a service to the family, but it's personal to everyone involved here. This is something we feel that every veteran has earned."
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Friday's assignment couldn't have come on nicer day, two days prior to Veterans Day. As members of the honor guard stood under a cloudless sky, the warm sun and cool breeze felt good on the shoulders of Richard Bozek, 65, as he gathered his gear from the van and readied himself for the service in the parking lot of Downing Funeral Home in Spring Hill.
Dressed in black slacks, black leather shoes, white gloves and a white shirt with patches identifying his Army service in Vietnam, Bosek patiently waited for family members and friends to come outside for the rifle salute.
Bosek, who joined the Post 10209 honor guard three years ago, has come to expect just about every type of weather when he attends a service. He has stood silent at grave sites while being peppered by cold winter rain; he has patiently stood vigil over flag-draped caskets at Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell in the blazing summer heat. No matter the conditions, he considers it a duty to be there.
"It's all about honor," Bozek said. "We do this because it's the right thing to do for a comrade. To see that they get an honorable burial."
But Bozek and his fellow honor guard members can't help but think they are part of a dwindling fraternity. Of the approximately 1,300 members of Post 10209, just 15 belong to the honor guard. And in a county that has one of the highest concentrations of retirement-age veterans in the United States, that has created a squeeze on the small volunteer corps, whose average age is 68.
Performing an average of eight or nine services a week, the group has been known to attend as many as three funerals in a single day.
"We're not a young bunch," said Gonsalves. "You stand for two hours in the summer heat, and it gets you. We don't like turning down any requests, but some days we have to because we just don't have enough people to be everywhere we're needed."
Gonsalves said the summer months, when many honor guard members are up North, are the toughest. Drumming up four people able to attend a service can become a tough task.
"We do the best we can," Gonsalves said. "Still, you hate to call on somebody when you know they're having health problems."
But then, some members of the honor guard are just that dedicated, Gonsalves said.
Vietnam veteran Ronald McCombs, 64, a cancer survivor, recalled his days following chemotherapy, when he felt he couldn't endure the rigors of a service. He went anyway because he didn't want to let down a fellow veteran.
"This is something I do for myself," McCombs said. "Being in the service was an important part of my life. I know that what we do for the family means a lot to them."
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Outside the funeral home on Friday, honor guard members John Cox, Ken Crocker, Bozek and McCombs stood at attention with rifles by their sides while Timm's family members and friends slowly filed out.
A gentle breeze blew as Barbara Currin raised a bugle to her lips.
As the solemn tones of taps faded into the traffic on U.S. 19, the riflemen waited for the final command.
"Fire." "Fire." "Fire."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]