Feature   Defense News

Honor Guard Soldiers Continue Final Salutes During COVID-19

June 1, 2020 | BY Army Capt. Avery Schneider , New York Army National Guard

On a warm and cloudy morning, Army Sgt. Nikole Clark and Army Spc. Austin Dycha stepped out of their cars at Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, New York, to conduct a funeral ceremony in honor of former Army Air Force Cpl. Raymond Kegler, who served during World War II.

Honor guard soldier at a military funeral.
Casket Post
Army Sgt. Nikole Clark, a member of the New York National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team, stands posted at the casket of Army Cpl. Raymond Kegler during his funeral in Lackawanna, N.Y., May 14, 2020. Clark wore a face mask as part of precautions being used during military funerals to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19.
Photo By: Army Capt. Avery Schneider, New York National Guard
VIRIN: 200514-Z-A3538-0007

Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Army National Guard's Military Funeral Honors Program continues to provide final salutes to Army veterans.

The two-member honor guard team surveyed the cemetery's granite-walled mausoleum and began final preparations for Kegler’s May 14 funeral.

They donned jackets and service caps, brushed off lint, and pulled on their white gloves.

Then they added the newest part of their uniforms: a black cloth mask. These masks are the primary protection against the spread of COVID-19 and are now required during funeral honors.

Honor guard soldiers at a military funeral.
Funeral Flag
Army Spc. Austin Dycha and Army Sgt. Nikole Clark, members of the New York National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team, remove the American flag from the casket of Army Spc. Levelzo Lyles at his funeral in Lackawanna, N.Y., May 14, 2020. Dycha and Clark wore cloth face masks as part of precautions being used during military funerals to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19.
Photo By: Army Capt. Avery Schneider, New York National Guard
VIRIN: 200514-Z-A3538-0021C

Before the pandemic, the New York Army National Guard's Military Funeral Honors Program was performing an average of 850 services per month, statewide. Now, the average is down to 350..

"Although veterans are passing, some cemeteries are not allowing honors to be performed at the moment," explained Army 1st Lt. Melisa Rosario, the officer in charge of the program.

Two types of ceremonies would normally be available. The first is modified full honors for retirees with 20 or more years of service, or those who died while on active duty. The second is modified honors for Army veterans with an honorable discharge. Nine soldiers, including a firing party, perform the modified full honors, and only two soldiers perform the modified honors.

Based on National Guard Bureau guidelines, a maximum of three soldiers are currently allowed at a funeral, so New York's program is offering only modified honors. Where they are permitted, each individual ceremony is directed by a detail leader like Clark, who has the duty of presenting the burial flag to the veteran's family.

Honor guard soldier plays a trumpet at a military funeral.
Playing Taps
Army Spc. Austin Dycha, a member of the New York National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team, plays Taps during the funeral of Army Spc. Levelzo Lyles in Lackawanna, N.Y., May 14, 2020. At all other times during the service, Dycha wore a face mask as part of precautions being used during military funerals to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19.
Photo By: Army Capt. Avery Schneider, New York National Guard
VIRIN: 200514-Z-A3538-0020A

"The detail leader will determine how safe they feel at the service and has the option to place the flag 6 feet from the next of kin, or on the casket," Rosario said.

New COVID-19 protection guidelines are causing a lot of uncertainty in the way the time-honored traditions of the final salute are performed. Small details such as which way a funeral procession arrives at the cemetery are normally the same each time, but with gate restrictions and casket arrival times affecting when and how the service takes place, honor guard members have to adjust quickly to each situation.

"We're trained to manage it and think on our feet," Clark said. "We make it work, whatever we've got to do."

The personnel restrictions don't just affect the honor guard. They also affect the number of family members allowed to attend.

"We've done services where it's hundreds of people there, and now it's a handful of people," Clark explained. "And once in a while you get them live-streaming, too. It's not really something you saw before."

onor guard soldiers at a military funeral.
Final Salute
Army Spc. Austin Dycha renders a final salute to the American flag held by Sgt. Nikole Clark during the funeral of Army Spc. Levelzo Lyles in Lackawanna, N.Y., May 14, 2020. As part of precautions against the spread of COVID-19, the members of the New York National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team wore face masks and maintained social distancing during the funeral.
Photo By: Army Capt. Avery Schneider, New York National Guard
VIRIN: 200514-Z-A3538-0022

Clark has performed more than 700 funeral honors. The steps become near-muscle memory, she said. What took the most getting used to was not kneeling in front of the next of kin to present the burial flag, she said.

"Kneeling in front of someone and looking into their eyes, and presenting them a flag is kind of a worth-a-thousand-words kind of thing, a big gesture, a more powerful gesture," Clark explained.

Clark and Dycha say that what they offer families during funerals while the COVID-19 pandemic continues is a sense of normalcy in a far-from-normal time.

"It's definitely less intimate," Clark said. "You just have to make do with it and still know that the family understands."

(Army Capt. Avery Schneider is assigned to the New York National Guard.)