They are all in their 60s and 70s now, graying if not gray, and arthritic joints mean some are moving a little slower than others. Sitting around the table at their regular breakfasts at Sparky’s restaurant in downtown Anoka, you’d never know these guys were renegades. But that is exactly what they are.
These are the men of the Vietnam Veterans of America Post 470 Honor Guard and they do things their own way.
At more than 200 funerals a year, the squad performs for burials of veterans. Their approach breaks protocol for the typical veteran honors funeral, where crisp uniformity and military precision trump special attention.
“There’s some people on other honor guards who say, ‘It can only be done this way,’ ” said squad founder and commander Mike Clark, a 67-year-old Army Vietnam vet and Purple Heart recipient. “I know there’s regulations for the military. They’ve got to do it a certain way. But we’re doing veterans honors, not military honors. We feel like we can make it more personal.”
Depending on the ceremony, they will explain the symbols involved: the helmet atop the rifle with the boots in front (the service member who once was but is no more); the origin of taps (a Civil War general liked the sound of it); why the flag is folded into a triangle (a tribute to hats worn during the Revolutionary War); why three rifle volleys are fired, not a 21-gun salute (the 21-gun salute is reserved for the Commander in Chief).
For many veterans, honors at their funeral mark the only recognition they seek for their military service.
The state of Minnesota provides funding to veteran service organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion to provide honors funerals for veterans.
They can be paid as much as $50 for each funeral, for expenses such as mileage and uniforms. But the money comes at a price.
The ceremonies must meet uniform requirements so that each one is exactly like the other. There is no room for lessons in military history.
The Anoka squad refuses the money. They rely instead on donations from the families of the honored veterans. There’s no verifying of discharge documents and adherence to the National Defense Act of 2000 for these guys.
“We don’t do it because we don’t like the paperwork, the stamp and triplicate, having a National Guard person approve it and getting our check,” Clark said.
Their dress is homage to the times in which they fought: green fatigues and black leather boots.
As a concession to ceremony, however, they use M1 rifles rather than the M16s commonly used in Vietnam. The M1s make a louder noise firing the three-volley salute.
No computer chips, just lips
By bugler Harold Reiner’s count, he’s played at more than a thousand funerals. He has nothing but disdain for a modern technique of using a computer chip inside a bugle to replay a recording of taps from Arlington National Cemetery. He said he’s heard of instances where the chip can go haywire and instead of taps, out comes reveille, a military tune to awaken troops at sunrise.
When Reiner performs, he’ll belt out a few of a half-dozen songs. At a recent service, he played “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with a Dixieland flourish.
“You think you’re coming to a funeral and you end up with a concert,” said Reiner, 85, a World War II Navy vet. “When it’s cold and your lips are against the mouthpiece, you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Well, you do this because it’s the only show they have.”
The squad doesn’t have a website. Since they began in 2000, news of their work has spread via word of mouth. Funeral directors often recommend them to grieving families.
Bill McReavy, whose family owns Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapels, said the Anoka squad is always dignified but can also provide some unintended levity on occasion, particularly if one of the aging rifles misfires.
Regardless, it is always educational, he said.
“It may be that some of the older-looking uniforms and more-historic rifles are not the way that other honor guards are seen today, being very modern, with neat-as-a-pin-type uniforms,” he said. “It’s maybe a little more authentic. Their hearts are in the right place.”
The honor squad gathered recently on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis for World War II veteran James Whitmore. A Civil War re-enactment group in Union regalia was honoring the new gravestone of a Civil War veteran about a hundred yards away.
Whitmore’s funeral entourage gathered around the silver casket and Clark respectfully launched into his lecture.
“The flag is always folded into a triangle in honor of our first veterans, our Revolutionary War soldiers,” he told them, holding up the folded flag. “Many of them wore a three-cornered hat, and thus the triangle.”
James Whitmore’s daughter, Lemetric Clardy, and her husband, Lawrence, himself a Vietnam-era vet, said the family had wanted military recognition for their loved one but thought it could only be done at a veterans cemetery.
The funeral home said it could be arranged and contacted the Anoka squad. Afterward, family members said they appreciated the personal approach.
“I’m a veteran and I didn’t know a lot of those things,” Lawrence said. “That really meant a lot to a lot of the family members.”
Looking back, paying forward
Many in the Anoka honor guard use their personal experiences as Vietnam veterans to motivate them. There was not a lot of “thank you for your service” when they got home.
After a series of childhood illnesses, it took three tries for squad member Sam Hermanstorfer to join the Army and make his way to Vietnam. When he came home to Minneapolis after three years, he ran out of cab fare halfway from the airport to his parent’s house.
The cabdriver told him to get out.
It was February in Minnesota and Hermanstorfer was wearing his summer uniform. He joined the squad to make sure all veterans get the honors he believes they are due.
“It helps me to be able to give back to my fellow vets,” said Hermanstorfer, now 66.
“We do it our way, but we do it the same way wherever we’re at.”
Over the years, the honor squad has buried a handful of its own. Clark, the squad’s founder, hopes the legacy can be carried on by younger veterans. As they get older, the squad’s own mortality is never far from their minds.
“All I want is that these guys are there. They’ll know what to do when the time comes,” Hermanstorfer said.