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Civilians sought for military funerals

Struggling to keep up with funerals of veterans, the military is asking civilians to volunteer as honor guards.

About 1,200 veterans die across the country each day, the Pentagon says. That's 8,400 a week, 438,000 a year. Most of them served in World War II and Korea.

Relatives often request an honor guard for the funerals, featuring at minimum the playing of taps and the presentation of the American flag.

An increase in the number of funerals and in the number of military deployments around the world, however, has made it difficult to keep up with requests for honor guards nationally, the Pentagon says.

"It's very much of a challenge," Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said at a briefing.

Not only is the Pentagon turning to veterans to serve in honor guards, but "any citizen who is trained and certified as an authorized provider by the respective military service."

Under the Authorized Provider Partnership Program, which goes into effect later this summer, it's up to local military commanders to train volunteers.

They can learn, for example, the proper way to fold a flag.

By law, if requested, the Pentagon must provide at least two uniformed service members for each funeral, including one from the same service as the deceased. "It's a desire to do the right thing for the families of our deceased veterans, particularly of the World War II generation," Quigley said.

The Pentagon says it performed 91,174 funerals last year.

With an aging World War II and Korean War veteran population, officials expect the problem to worsen. Only a few years ago, the number of daily veteran deaths nationwide was 1,000. Around 2008, the number of deaths is expected to peak at 620,000 a year, or nearly 1,700 a day, before leveling off.

A local breakdown of the number of deaths was unavailable. But according to the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, 320,108 veterans lived in the Tampa Bay area as of last September. Pinellas had 123,825 veterans; Hillsborough, 101,858; Pasco, 50,562; Hernando, 22,939; and Citrus, 20,924.

With 1,771,200 veterans, Florida trailed only California in veteran population. Overall in the United States, there were 25,498,000 veterans as of last September.

The median age of veterans in Florida was 58.7, compared with 57.4 in the rest of the country.

Veterans organizations have said they will gladly take on the responsibility of serving as honor guards, but will need training to brush up on the duties.

Harvey Wilcox, 66, commander of VFW Post 10167 in Holiday, has seen the honor guard shortage firsthand. A veteran of Korea, Wilcox has served in his group's honor guard for three years.

The most difficult part of the assignment, he said, is having to turn down families requesting the service.

Just last weekend, he had to say no twice.

Part of the problem, Wilcox said, is that the volunteers are mostly in their 70s and 80s. The oldest member of the troop, he said, is 86.

"Because I'm a veteran, I just hate to see a veteran buried without an honor guard," said Wilcox, an Army man. "You'd be surprised how people in the funeral are impressed . . . when we play the taps, America the Beautiful."

Robert Volkman, 76, is a DAV commander in Lutz. A Marine, he, too, serves in an honor guard.

In 1996, Volkman said, they performed 326 funerals. Because several members have died, they now serve at about three funerals a month.

Volkman said it's sad to have this type of problem, and he didn't put much faith in the new Pentagon program.

He wondered where the volunteers would come from. "I imagine by the time I kick the bucket, we won't even have an honor guard," Volkman said. "It's pretty miserable."

The Pentagon, however, is working the problem aggressively. It is getting the word out to military commanders and veterans organizations and is establishing a Web site with information on the new program.

The current Web site on military funeral honors is http://www.militaryfuneralhonors.osd.mil

Not everyone in the Tampa Bay area reported a shortage of honor guards. Joe Magaddino, the funeral director at North Meadowlawn Funeral Home and Cemetery in New Port Richey, for example, said he had not had a problem, as he could contact several veterans groups in the area.

At Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Bobby Hodges, the cemetery representative, said they, too, had not seen a problem. He pointed to groups including the DAV, the VFW and the Marine Corps League as organizations that provide honor guards.

Noting that Florida National Cemetery is the third-busiest cemetery in the national military system, Hodges said the honor guards stay busy.

"Some of them come out and do three or four a day," he said.

MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, meanwhile, is responding with its own program.

In May, the base established a full-time honor guard.

Lt. Greg Kuzma, a spokesman, said that in the past, base officials asked for 50 volunteers who were kept on call. Today, there are 18 service members who do nothing but military funerals. The members of the honor guard rotate monthly.

According to Kuzma, the MacDill Honor Guard is responsible for providing at least two members to military funerals as far north as Marion County and as far south as the Florida Keys. In May, they served at 26 funerals; in June, 37.

Although the base team services Air Force veterans, it also has provided personnel for other service branches. Kuzma said base officials formed the permanent honor guard to reduce the number of members on call and to cope with the growing number of funerals.

"As far as the members go, they feel a lot of pride," he said. "We feel good about providing the service for those Americans who have provided the ultimate service."

Harry Smith, right, and Marine Corps League 708 of Spring Hill are the most active honor guard to volunteer at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. Sal Barone Jr., vice commandant of the group, says they performed 429 ceremonies last year.

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