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DoD Committed to Rendering Veterans' Funeral Honors

By Staff Sgt. Alicia K. Borlik, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 21, 1999 – A DoD plan to improve the availability and delivery of military funeral honors for deceased veterans went before Congress April 19 for approval.

Under the proposed plan, the military services would be required, upon the request of the next of kin, to provide funeral honors at the burial of a veteran. Honors will consist of a team of at least two persons who will conduct a flag-folding ceremony and present the flag to the family. At least one of the team will be a uniformed member of the veteran's parent service and will present the flag. The plan also requires a live or recorded rendering of "Taps."

The plan was drawn up in concert with the Department of Veterans Affairs and a broad range of veterans service organizations, said Gail McGinn, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for personnel support, families and education. She said it responds to a requirement in the fiscal 1999 Defense Authorization Act for DoD either to submit a funeral honors plan acceptable to Congress or, starting Jan. 1, 2000, to provide a three-person honor guard and the ability to play "Taps" at the funeral of any veteran.

The presence of the uniformed military member for the flag presentation is the key difference, McGinn said. The current legislation doesn't require anyone in the honor guard to be uniformed, she said.

"I think it's a good alternative," she said of the DoD plan. "I think it provides the proper tribute and is supportable within the mission of the Department of Defense. I'm hopeful it will be received well." Regardless of the legislative outcome, she said, DoD will establish a toll-free phone number and Web site for easier coordination of funeral honors.

According to McGinn, DoD's plan lays the groundwork of setting minimum requirements for funeral honors. "We are allowing the services to exceed these minimums where they can, in accordance with local resources and their service culture and traditions," she said.

The new policy would allow the services to work with certain local organizations, such as veterans' groups and college ROTC units, to identify people willing to help provide honors. The services would provide training in funeral honors. Upon completion of training, these authorized "providers" could be reimbursed for reasonable related expenses. They also would have access to clothing sales stores for the equipment and any appropriate uniforms, decorations and insignia they need, McGinn added.

DoD is also recommending two legislative changes to enhance reserve component participation. The first would allow participating reservists to receive pay and retirement points above the annual 75-point cap. The second proposal would allow reserve personnel performing funeral honors to remain on active duty beyond 180 days without counting against DoD's authorized active duty end strength.

The department's toll-free number will connect callers to the parent service's regional honors provider. Although anybody affiliated with the deceased veteran will be able to use it, the phone line is geared to funeral directors, McGinn said. The regional honors providers are responsible for coordination and ensuring honors details are in place on time, she said.

The Web site should be active by Jan. 1, when the policy goes into effect, she said. The site will have information about trained and available providers in local veterans' organizations and other groups. "The person coordinating the honors ceremony can go to the Web site and pull out phone numbers -- use it as a tool," she said.

Current DoD policy only requires the military services to provide appropriate tributes "within the constraints of available resources." The policy permits but doesn't require specific funeral honors based on a veteran's service.

Unchanged for almost 15 years, the funeral honors policy no longer works because of increasing veteran deaths and a shrinking active duty force, McGinn said. Since 1989, the number of veteran deaths per year has climbed 18 percent as the active force has dropped 33 percent, she explained.

"Those two events are at odds with each other -- more requests, less manpower," she said. A recent National Funeral Directors Association survey, she said, indicates DoD should expect 45 percent of eligible survivors to request funeral honors for decedents. "That's what we think will happen," she said.

The services today provide honors at about 37,000 funerals a year. If the 45 percent estimate is accurate, the number of honors ceremonies rendered will eventually climb to over 250,000 per year as the number of veterans' deaths continues to increase, she remarked.

To meet this challenge, the services have already started doing a number of things. The Army recently set a minimum standard of a two-person funeral honor detail. The Air Force tested the idea of calling National Guard and Reserve members to duty for 179 days to augment an active duty funeral honors team. The commandant of the Marine Corps sent a message with clear, simple guidance: Marines will provide military funeral honors for Marines.

"Veterans are the men and women who have made personal sacrifices for our country, fought for our country and who have performed honorable service for our country," said McGinn. "We think it's important to pay them an appropriate and respectful final tribute and one last salute."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA military honor guard drill team stands in formation during a funeral service. A DoD plan pending before Congress seeks to improve the availability and delivery of military funeral honors for deceased veterans. DoD Photo by TSgt Fernando Serna  
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