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Recalled to duty

Veterans Honor Guard again providing military services

VFW Blair County Veterans Honor Guard member Forris Oldham (left) salutes fellow honor guard member Barry Leonard after the folding of the American flag during a funeral service for a fallen veteran at Smith Corner Church in East Freedom Friday. Mirror photo by Andrew Mollenauer

On a typical week, the VFW Blair County Veterans Honor Guard conducts five military funeral services, honoring the fallen with the playing of taps as well as the traditional folding and presentation of the American flag to the next of kin, and the firing of arms salute.

When the COVID-19 pandemic worsened with the turn of fall toward winter, the group was forced to cease its routine for about two months beginning Nov. 5. With most of the honor guard members in their 70s and 80s, they’re particularly susceptible to the virus, which has a higher mortality rate among older adults. Eight out of 10 reported COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are in people 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In spite of the challenges the virus has posed on its normal functions, the honor guard returned to services Jan. 8.

Group members gathered recently at the American Legion to vote on whether to return to service. Several people suggested waiting another month, but the group opted to return, and conducted a military service the next day.

Since returning to services, honor guard members have had to be diligent in taking necessary precautions to protect themselves from the virus. It’s hard to socially distance during the ceremonies, but most members have been wearing masks, according to the unit’s bugler, Les W. Hart.

Members of the VFW Blair County Veterans Honor Guard prepare for the firing of arms salute at the funeral of a fallen veteran at Smith Corner Church in East Freedom Friday. Mirror photo by Andrew Mollenauer

Hart, an Air Force veteran, goes maskless during ceremonies to play his trumpet, but is able to socially distance thanks to being seated away from everyone else.

“When we do funerals, I always find a place where I’m basically by myself,” Hart said. “I do not mingle with the guys too much.” He sits in another room, usually a foyer or a separate hallway, while he plays taps.

On top of the challenges with precautions are the restrictions in place that limit funeral attendance. In the case of military services where honor guard personnel can total more than a dozen people, families and friends of fallen soldiers can only attend in limited numbers, according to funeral director Jeff Somers of Myers-Somers Funeral Home at 501 Sixth Ave.

“Normally, you would have an honor guard with a full contingent of family,” Somers said. “We’ve had to limit that. We’ve had to limit the way we go about even conducting military services.”

Somers said capacity at his funeral home has been limited to as little as 10%, going only as high as 20%.

The nature of military funerals makes it particularly difficult to conduct them during the pandemic, Somers said, as the services involve honor guard members constantly being within close proximity of each other. With people lined up shoulder-to-shoulder for the firing of arms salute and standing less than 6 feet apart while folding the flag, it’s impossible to socially distance.

“With COVID, we’ve had to curtail much of that,” Somers said.

The honor guard’s return to action is meaningful to those inside and outside the local military community. Funeral director Bob Jones of Jones Funeral Home in Altoona is perhaps one of the group’s biggest supporters.

“I will stand by those guys forever,” Jones said. “They’re dressed in uniforms, they look great, they do a good job.”

The VFW Blair County Veterans Honor Guard is glad to be back, honoring its fallen comrades. Commander Richard Miller, affectionately nicknamed “Gunny” by his fellow honor guard members, said it means a lot to him and the rest of the group.

“We’re honored to be back,” Miller said. “It’s a privilege for us to be a part of that, being veterans ourselves.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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