Three volleys of rifle fire were followed by the mournful notes of Taps. Two veterans ceremoniously lifted the American flag off the casket, carefully folded it into a classic triangular shape with the blue field of stars exposed, and presented it to the deceased’s family, offering the thanks of a grateful nation. We polished up the brass and offered the expended cartridges to the family. Then we got in our cars and went back to town. Another veteran had been laid to rest with military honors.
We were the Honor Guard from the American Legion Post 92 in Redfield, South Dakota. When a local veteran died, the funeral director immediately contacted our Post Adjutant, who alerted a team of Legion members to form an Honor Guard. Providing Military Honors for a passing veteran was one of our most important functions at Post 92.
At an appointed time, we would assemble at the Legion Hall to organize an Honor Guard. We all dressed in American Legion caps and uniform jackets with white shirts with black ties and uniform trousers or black pants. Equipment consisted of an American flag, a state flag and an American Legion flag, a bugle with an insert that played Taps, three M-1 Garand rifles with red plugs at the end of the barrels, and blank cartridges.
There was an unofficial order of precedence on the Honor Guard. The most inexperienced members carried the flags, followed by the bugler and the riflemen. The most experienced were the flag folders and the Honor Guard Commander, who could perform any function. Depending on experience level, some or all the members practiced in the hall before departing for the cemetery.
More often, we just assembled and checked our equipment and talked each position through. There was a National Guard unit in Miller about 45 miles from Redfield that had a team of soldiers specially trained to present Honors to deceased veterans, and we occasionally got a team to fold the flag off the casket and present it to the family. They were a special treat. They weren’t old and overweight like most of us veterans. They were young, trim soldiers. They wore immaculate dress blue uniforms, and their shoes sparkled. They wore white gloves, and all their moves were as if they were on parade. The Post 92 Honor Guard performed the other ceremonial functions, but the soldiers removed the flag from the coffin, folded it carefully and presented it to the family.
By law, American veterans honorably discharged from active service are entitled to military honors when they die. There are professional teams at all our National Cemeteries who perform these honors, but many hundreds of veterans are buried each year in local cemeteries across America who are provided military honors by local veterans’ organizations in much the same way our veterans are honored in Redfield, South Dakota.