Anoka’s Vietnam vets don’t follow strict rules at comrades’ funerals.
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.”