Volunteers who honor veterans at funerals resist Army plans to change rifles, saying World War II-era weapons are too heavy and too complicated.
Now the Army wants to replace them with a newer model. But it won't be without a fight.
"What the heck is the problem?" said Tom Mullon, a 74-year-old Vietnam War-era veteran and 12-year volunteer for the squad, which fires off three rifle volleys followed by taps at veterans' burials. "The whole squad is irked about it. We're doing a job for the Army, and we don't cost them a nickel."
On Wednesday, working through U.S. Rep. John Kline, a retired Marine colonel, the 128-member rifle squad won a reprieve of sorts. The Army is going to look into their complaints and reconsider its decision to switch to a smaller number of World War II vintage M1 Garands.
The Garand may represent newer technology, but it's a heavier rifle with a more complicated reload mechanism that could spell potential trouble for the memorial rifle members, many of whom are in their 70s, 80s and even 90s.
"A lot of people get their fingers caught in them," said Bob Nelson, a Vietnam vet who commands the all-volunteer squad.
The new Army policy also limits the squad to 15 rifles, down from 50 that are now shared among the five details working different days. Combined, the details cover an average of 45 to 50 burials a week.
The reason for the changes remains unclear, at least to the rifle squad members. "There are a lot of stories floating around here," Nelson said. "Most of these guys have grown up with their Springfield rifles for 30 years. I know the guys are really set in their ways."
A Pentagon spokesman contacted by the Star Tribune Wednesday said he did not have a ready answer. The rifle squad members speculate that the Pentagon wants to take stock of its Army-issued rifles for accounting purposes.
"It's one of those big broad brush things that they have to go through, I guess," Mullon said of the Pentagon bureaucracy.
"We can't get a truthful statement out of anyone," Nelson said. "I don't know anyone who really knows why they want to take them away."
What they do know is some members of the squad, which formed in 1979, would rather fight than switch, and some may even quit.
"What we're saying is, leave us alone," Mullon said.
Kline, a Republican, wrote to Army Secretary John McHugh on Friday praising the work of the rifle squad and asking that the Army "take into account the sheer volume and use of the Ft. Snelling Squad's ceremonial rifles and allow them to keep their current stock for the near term."
On Wednesday, Kline announced the Army would launch an "inquiry" into the matter. In addition, an aide said that Kline intends to introduce legislation early next year to resolve the problem.
To Kline, the issue is largely about recognizing the squad's sacrifices for their fellow soldiers, sailors and Marines. "As you talk to them you realize they're all guys in their 70s and 80s," he said. "They're out there in the winter when it's below zero. They're out there all the time."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.
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