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Continued: Budget cuts imperil final honors for veterans

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 27, 2012 - 6:21 AM
The image of the military funeral is iconic: soldiers in crisp dress blues and polished shoes smartly folding the flag, a stiff volley from M14 rifles pointed to the sky, a solemn bugler playing the final tribute -- taps.

But starting Monday, the number of military funerals may be cut almost in half in Minnesota and some families hoping for that last recognition for their loved one will be left wanting, the result of a dispute over Pentagon budget cuts to the program that pays for the funerals.

The state's lone bugler even has been told his services will no longer be needed. He'll be replaced in some ceremonies by a digital version of taps from a device inserted into a bugle to make it look and sound like the real thing.

For many veterans, a military funeral is often the only request they make for their military service. As many as seven out of 10 Minnesota veterans receive no federal benefits other than a military funeral.

"I'm probably going to have to say no to some veterans," said Chris Van Hofwegen, who heads the program for the Minnesota National Guard. "They want that headstone that says what they were. They were proud of their service and they want the honors that are due to them because they put that service in."

The state's Military Funeral Honor unit is on pace to perform 4,700 funerals by the end of its fiscal year.

But the head of the unit says it will be cut to 11 full-time members from 24 starting Oct. 1.

The unit, which now has teams in Moorhead, Duluth, St. Cloud, and Cottage Grove, provides at least two uniformed soldiers to funerals where they are requested, with a team often attending two or three funerals a day.

Funding for the Minnesota program, which has largely paid for travel and for the salaries, has been reduced from $1.16 million a year to $645,000, putting the number of funerals the unit could perform in jeopardy, Van Hofwegen said.

With the budget cuts and reduced staffing, Van Hofwegen said, teams will be confined to funerals at Fort Snelling in Bloomington and the Minnesota Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls. All other requests around the state will be granted on a first-come, first-served basis based on a 50-mile radius of a team's availability. The units in Duluth and Moorhead will still exist but will operate at reduced levels, and some of the slack may be taken up by other part-time Guard members.

Extent of cuts disputed

But the National Guard Bureau in Washington said Wednesday the cuts would be less severe and would be absorbed by part-time Guard members. The Guard Bureau, which administers National Guard funding nationwide, said the cuts to the full-time positions would be 15 percent, not 45 percent, and that funding for part-time positions would be increased 72 percent over this year's funding, which would absorb the cuts to the full-time positions.

It could provide no further details about the discrepancy in the figures.

While the teams already work with civilian honor guards through such organizations as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, and memorial rifle squads, the Guard teams are members of the active-duty military, who have been trained by instructors from Arlington National Cemetery.

The service for Edwin Laumann at the Holy Trinity Catholic Cemetery in Winsted on Wednesday might be the type of funeral affected by the cuts. Laumann was a 91-year-old World War II Army veteran who served as a radio operator in the Philippines.

Family members expressed gratitude for the presence of the two members of the Honor Guard who were there.

"They need to keep this going; it's our forefathers," said Laumann's oldest grandson, Jason Widmer, who joined the military himself because of his grandfather.

One of the two soldiers who served as the Honor Guard for the Laumann family was deployed in Iraq and lost three friends. "This means a lot to me," he said. "In a way, I'm honoring them as well."

The other soldier (members of the Honor Guard remain anonymous) said the ceremonies touch people in a way that other elements in the military might not.

"I get to feel like I'm serving the people in Minnesota every day," he said.

"Every day I get the sense of feeling I made a difference in somebody's life."

Funeral directors say a reduction in the number of ceremonies would more likely affect funerals outstate, where the military honors may often be the only military presence.

"Their mere presence has elevated the performance of our local honors teams," said Pat Patton, owner of Patton-Schad Funeral and Cremation Services in Sauk Centre. "The absence of the Guard members will be felt by the families who have witnessed them perform their duties in the past and they realize that they are no longer present."

When the cuts threatened the playing of live taps in New York state, a group of Long Island business owners and a museum banded together to keep the song played live in their area. In addition, members of the New York congressional delegation sent a letter to the National Guard Bureau and were able to confirm that the money for live buglers was from a separate fund and live bugling would continue in New York, despite the looming cuts.

Money might be restored

Van Hofwegen, coordinator of the state Honor Guard, said he is hopeful funding might be restored.

"The Department of Defense is trying to weigh where their money is going to and where their best bang for the buck is," he said. "They must think it is being served by someone else or that it will be re-established later on."

Meantime, Van Hofwegen said he will try to supplement his remaining staff with the part-time soldiers who have other military duties. That will include a live bugler when one is available -- and requested by families -- or the use of the digital device, a recording of the bugler from Arlington National Cemetery.

"If you could, of course, you'd want to have the live one," Van Hofwegen said. "He can carry those notes out a little longer. Otherwise, you get the same perfect one every time."

It isn't the first time that honors at military funerals have been threatened. Funding for service organizations such as the VFW and American Legion that provided honors funerals for veterans was cut by Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature in 2011, but that money was restored.

Legislation passed in 2012 provides $100,000 for continued funding through the 2013 fiscal year. The money reimbursed civilian honor guards, providing them as much as $50 for each funeral for such expenses as mileage and uniforms.

During debate over that issue, state Rep. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Twp., chairman of the House Veterans Services Division and a retired member of the military, said he saw how families and veterans become emotional when the military honors are threatened.

"We put the extra money in and we thought we were set. We're surprised to hear about these federal cuts," said Anderson, adding that it's unclear whether the state could make up for the cuts.

"Veterans and family members say, 'We signed on the bottom line, we gave 100 percent and whatever they asked.' This is the least you could do to bid them farewell in a proper manner."

Star Tribune photographer David Joles contributed reporting to this story. Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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    Minnesota's Military Honor Guard faces cuts leaving some families without the option for a military funeral for their loved...

  • A military funeral is the sole benefit some veterans ask for after their service. On Wednesday, an Honor Guard played “Taps” and tended to a U.S. flag during the service for World War II Army vet Edwin G. Laumann in Winsted, Minn.

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