BLOOMINGTON — A U.S. flag flaps in the strong west wind. Members of the American Legion Honor Guard stand at attention as the family of an Air Force veteran walks to the gravesite at East Lawn Memorial Gardens.
Another flag is carefully folded into a triangle shape, with 13 precise folds, then handed to the family “on behalf of a grateful nation, the president of the United States and the U.S. Air Force.”
A seven-member rifle team fires three volleys and taps is played.
Friday's service was the 59th time this year that the honor guard from Bloomington-Normal has performed these military rites.
“There's a feel at each and every service that we do … there are no words to describe,” said Butch Ekstam of Carl S. Martin American Legion Post 635, who helps assemble the honor guard when its needed. “They take that honor very seriously.”
Although Post 635 of Normal and Louis E. Davis Post 56 of Bloomington remain separate entities, they joined forces on a honor guard and color guard a number of years ago to ensure enough people were available when needed. The group is considered a color guard when making presentations other than military rites at funerals.
Last weekend, there were three services in one day. From Friday to Monday of Memorial Day weekend, the guard did eight full presentations and a funeral in the middle.
“In other words, these guys gave up the entire weekend to honor the fallen heroes,” Ekstam said.
But when you talk to the volunteers involved, they shrug off the sacrifice and describe it as an honor to be involved.
“It's tiring and somewhat draining — emotionally draining — and yet, it's satisfying to know the veteran got his last hurrah,” said Jerry Monical, honor guard commander for Post 635.
Rick Ross, honor guard commander for Post 56 said, “It's a great bunch of guys.”
He got involved after his brother, a military veteran, passed away and no one was available to provide military rites.
“I decided to step up and do something about it,” said Ross.
Last year, the honor guard was at 80 funerals and the year before it was at 110. This year is on pace to surpass 2015.
Because of the time involved, nearly all the members of the honor guard are retired or only work part time. And, as members get older, it's important to replenish the ranks, said Ekstam.
Roger Cann of Post 635 said, at age 66, he is one of the younger members of the honor guard.
A Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, Cann said, “I felt it was the least I could do. … I figured it was my time.”
The latest member-in-training is Jill Henry of Post 635, who will become the first female member of the honor guard.
A 20-year Army veteran, Henry served as a nurse anesthetist from 1973 to 1993, including service in Operation Desert Storm.
After retiring from the workforce, Henry decided she wanted to give back and become more involved in military activities. She wasn't sure how she would be received as a woman in the American Legion, but said, “They've been very welcoming” and asked her to join the honor guard.
Not every task is as solemn as funeral services. The color guard performs at a variety of activities, from parades to sporting events to Cub Scout promotion ceremonies. On Friday night, the color guard was part of the opening ceremonies at the Special Olympics Summer Games at Illinois State University.
The chance to be part of activities with young people and provide some patriotic experiences is fun and rewarding, said guard members.
“You teach them something they don't get elsewhere,” said Monical. “Yes, they get it at school, but it's not as visual."
He said having the color guard, in uniform, explaining patriotic practices has more of an impact.
Recently, the two posts had a dinner for honor guard members, their spouses and supporters, such as bagpipers and buglers who assist with the ceremonies. There are more than 27 people on the call list, but “a core group” of about 12 to 18 people perform most of the ceremonies, said Ekstam.
“Our ranks have increased because people have seen what we're doing and step up,” said Ross.
“I feel like I'm able to give back to the community,” said Ken Brumley of Post 56, a former member of the Patriot Guard Riders. “Every veteran has earned respect. … I owe them a debt of gratitude.”