Special Report: Final Farewells

Rural Northland Towns Struggle to Staff Honor Guards

DULUTH, Minn. – The end of a life can be one of the hardest experiences for a family to get through.

The presentation of military honors at a veteran’s funeral can give that last bit of pride to the deceased.

Unfortunately, across America, there is a struggle to keep honor guards staffed, and it’s even harder in rural areas.

“They earned it. These people went out and did a job that a lot of people won’t do,” said Craig Skoglund, former Duluth Honor Guard Officer.

The people he’s referring to are American military veterans.

“Where are the younger veterans? And don’t give me an excuse that you’re busy, or you’re raising a family. We have all been busy and have other things to do,” said Vince Sando, Lake County Veterans Service Officer and a member of their honor guard.

Sando has watched this problem become all too real up the shore, “With advancing age it becomes physically very difficult, sometimes, to do those functions that you would normally have to do as part of an honor or color guard.”

He says they’re just looking to pass the torch and there shouldn’t be a struggle to find people to pass these duties to.

“We’ve been at war basically since August 2, 1990, in the Gulf. 27 years. There’s plenty of veterans out there,” said Sando.

In the Duluth Honor Guard, there is a wide age range – from 20 to 96.

However, Skoglund says most numbers are Vietnam War era and older.

So, the search is always on for those younger vets.

These veterans tell us it’s not just honor guards needing recruits.

American legions and VFWs are losing members, too.

“There’s a lot of comradery that goes on, a lot of esprit de corps,” said Skoglund.

Skoglund says these organizations are full of men and women from all branches of the military, “We’ve got representatives from each branch that are in there and we all rib each other just as much as if we were on active duty.”

Overall, their message is clear.

“Get out there. Get involved,” said Sando, “take some pride in being a veteran.”

Sando believes this duty is part of the oath he took when joining the Air Force.

“When you think about the words “duty, honor, country” they don’t just apply to the times that you spent in the military,” Sando explained.

This passion is shared by many veterans because only they truly know why it’s so vital for the presentation of military honors to continue.

“It’s something that you have to be in the boots to really understand what they’re giving,” said Skoglund.

“I have never presented brass to the next of kin, ever, where I didn’t see tears in the eyes,” said Sando, “you think they’re not grateful for that service of their loved one and that we were there to provide that benefit? They’re grateful. You know I could start going right now,” said Sando.

While honor guards across the country struggle with recruitment issues, one Duluth man is working with state lawmakers to ensure military honors are performed correctly.

According to state law, at least two veterans need to be present to perform military honors.

That includes the playing of taps and a flag presentation.

All veterans service organizations are also to work with active military.

“We are to mimic exactly what they do [active military] and that’s provide pall bearers, a rifle salute, taps and a flag presentation,” explained John Marshall, Captain of the Duluth Honor Guard.

Marshall has been working on legislation that will be presented next year.

“In the future, it will be required for all veterans service organizations to be certified by the Army National Guard’s Military Funeral Honors Program so that they’re doing things properly,” said Marshall.

If they’re not certified, the group won’t receive the state stipend.

The proposal also allows one Army Guardsman to be present at all funerals and they can reach out to other branches for support.

Federal law states only one needs to be from the specific branch of the deceased.

“This legislation is to hopefully help other veterans service organizations do the right thing,” explained Marshall.

To Marshall, this work is a no brainer.

“There is sacrifice made by all veterans and they deserve nothing but the best. There’s only one way to do military honors and that’s the right way,” said Marshall.

“We stopped being in the military maybe at one time, but we’re never stopping being veterans,” explained Sando.

These veterans say it’s time to step up.

“Someday it’s gonna be my turn, and I’m going to want it. So, younger veterans, get out there,” said Sando.

Skoglund says, “the most important thing to me is that we are honoring their sacrifice, what they’ve done for their country.”

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