Rifle squad honors vets with 57,000 goodbyes
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The bus stops on the cemetery path and the silver-haired men file out, sober-faced and silent amid a sea of white marble tombstones. Some carry rifles, some flags, a few hold bugles. They’ve all come to say goodbye — to a stranger.
This is their eighth funeral of the day. They have five more to go.
The men are members of a special fraternity of veterans. Two generations. Three wars. Survivors of places such as Khe Sanh, Chu Lai, Tokyo Bay, the Chosin Reservoir. Recipients of Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars. Now all together, offering a final salute to those who, like them, served long ago.
Their gait may be slower than it once was, their shoulders a bit more stooped, their eyesight not quite as sharp, but every weekday, 12 months a year, in knee-deep snow and blistering heat, the men of the Fort Snelling Memorial Rifle Squad are out in force and in formation, paying tribute to veterans being laid to rest.
The volunteer squad travels in its own bus across the vast Fort Snelling National Cemetery, conducting full military honors: The call to arms. The white-gloved salute. Three rounds of rifle shots. The mournful wail of two bugles. The folding of the flag. A few words of thanks to the family. Then one final salute.
It’s a sad ceremony, but a celebration, too.
“When you fire those three volleys and play Taps, that’s a signal to somebody upstairs that someone special — a veteran — is on the way there,” says Ted Nemzek, an 82-year-old squad member and Korean War vet whose Bronze Star hangs jauntily from his cap. “It’s a wonderful way to say goodbye. It’s meaningful.”
He should know.
He and the squad have said goodbye more than 57,000 times.
It began with a man named George Weiss Jr. more than 30 years ago when a friend, a World War II fighter pilot, died and some buddies at the VFW post in the tiny town of Mendota asked him to gather a rifle squad for the proper military send-off.
Easier said than done.
Weiss had to snag a local high school kid to play the bugle and call in some favors to gather a six-man team. That got him thinking. There had to be others who’d need the tribute. So he began making the rounds to VFW and American Legion halls, pitching the idea.
A squad was born. It has been going ever since.
Weiss, now 82, is the only original survivor, a wiry great-grandfather with a hankering for Harleys (he drove one until he was in his 70s) and a razor-sharp memory of being 17 and so eager to be a part of World War II that he dropped out of high school and joined the Marines. He wound up in China in 1945.
The military, as it turned out, has served as bookends in his life. He took off his Marine uniform as a young man, had a long career at the Ford Motor Co., then in 1979, found himself saluting once more at the squad’s first funeral. At 50, he was the youngest member.
He’s still at it every Friday, donning the squad’s official outfit — a black jacket with a patch that features the Veterans Affairs eagle emblem, black shoes and tie, white shirt with collar pins and overseas cap. The 128-member squad is divided into five groups; each man volunteers on a designated weekday.
Weiss, who has attended thousands of funerals, says the goodbyes are especially poignant for those who’ve outlived family and have few or no mourners. That’s most common for World War II vets; on average, 737 die each day across the country, according to the VA.
“Let me put it this way,” Weiss says, “last Friday, we had 15 or 16 funerals. Three of them had just one car. One had just one person. Here’s someone who had spent time in the military and had protected his country and he had just one mourner. Well, he had 23 members of our squad out there. I know this sounds melodramatic ... but he did not go out alone.”
“I don’t know if that makes sense to you,” he says, “but it does to me.”
It does, too, to President Barack Obama.
Last summer, Weiss’ contribution earned him an invitation to the White House, where Obama honored him and a dozen others with the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, the nation’s second-highest honor for civilians.
Weiss savors the memory of that August day and the ego boost of having the president quote and praise him. “I had to make sure my head wasn’t too big for my shoulders,” he says, his blue eyes sparkling.
He had a plan. He would salute the president when he received his medal. “I asked the Marine captain (if it would be OK) and ... and he said he IS the commander in chief,” Weiss recalls.
Weiss did just that, raising his hand in a crisp salute, and was thrilled when Obama returned it and made the day even more special with a “way to go” atta boy.
The squad is now an institution at Fort Snelling, where more than 192,000 veterans (men and women) and their families from as far back as the Civil War are buried. About 20 funerals are held daily.
Squad members receive a schedule of funerals daily, but usually know nothing about the person beyond the branch of service, unless someone has clipped out a newspaper obituary. On rare occasions, there’s someone of special distinction, such as one of the Marines who planted the flag at Iwo Jima.
There are other rifle squads across the country, but the Fort Snelling group is believed to be the only all-volunteer one with such a lengthy record of continuous service. It has presided at more than 57,000 funerals, never missing one because of weather.
Virtually everyone in the group is retired; members have held almost every kind of job: postmaster, engineer, teacher, firefighter, welder, autoworker, printer, VA hospital director, even the state’s former veterans affairs commissioner.
They span all military branches and more than 30 years in age. Among the most senior is Dick O’Toole, 87, who refused to let a heart defect and a warning at the enlistment office — “don’t come back even if there’s an invasion” — stop him. He found a home in the Merchant Marine during World War II. The ’baby’ is Tim Gabrio, 59, a ruddy-faced Navy vet who helped rescue 102 downed pilots in Vietnam. He’s now disabled, with a leg brace — the effects of exposure to Agent Orange.
Like others, Gabrio says he doesn’t need to know the names or biographies of those he honors.
“It doesn’t matter not knowing them,” he says. “It’s knowing what they did for their country.”
Nemzek, too, says there’s an instant kinship with all the men and women he helps bury.
“I know what it’s like to be shot at,” he says. “I know the experience. I understand what this vet may have been though ... You know what it’s like to be damned scared. You know what it’s like to have that kind of feeling wondering if you’re going to be around tomorrow. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s Iraq, Korea or Vietnam. Vets just seem to appreciate other vets.”
That goes for squad members themselves.
Each morning before the funerals, they gather in a building on the cemetery grounds to clean their rifles (they used the 1903 Springfield model), play cribbage, swap stories, and share coffee, home-baked goods whipped up by one of their wives and a few laughs.
“We’re close. Very close,” Weiss says. “Closer than brothers.”
So much so that each death is mourned like it’s a family member. The squad lost five members last year, including one Korean War vet who’d been a longtime prisoner of war. Some men have quit because of illness, but others who’ve had cancer, diabetes, cataracts, heart and knee surgery keep coming.
Every one has a reason.
For Archie Hazzard, the 76-year-old commander of the squad, it’s a chance to honor vets who are much like his family. He decided to join the day in 1983 when he was at Fort Snelling, burying his father, also Archie, who’d landed at Normandy. His uncle Chuckie is there, too; he died a day after his 19th birthday in the Battle of the Bulge. A great-uncle from World War I and two Vietnam-era cousins are there, too.
“How can you walk among all these rows ... and not be honored and humbled and see this as hallowed ground?” Hazzard asks.
For others, there are different motivations.
For Fran Buesgens a 64-year-old retired teacher, this makes amends for something he DIDN’T do — go to Vietnam, even though he served in the Army during that time.
“I’m still having guilt feelings for having it easy,” says Buesgens, who also notes that hanging around the World War II guys gives him insight into his father’s experiences. “It kind of fills in holes for me because my dad would never talk about it,” he says.
For Tom Mullon, an Army Vietnam vet, it’s something of a natural progression. He was a director of a VA hospital, then a VA home, and now this ... “I wanted to stay in the veterans business,” he says with a smile.
Truth be told, it’s not all bleak.
There are lighter moments, especially witnessing the creative containers people have chosen for their cremated remains: a Wheaties box, duffel bag, briefcase, cowboy boot, golf clubs, salt-and-pepper shakers and a cake, which turned out to contain the ashes of, what else, a baker.
One squad member also remembers overhearing an amusing exchange one day when a mourner leaned over to point out the squad to a little boy, telling him, “Those are the men who protected our country.” To which the puzzled kid said, “Those old guys?”
Being in a cemetery every week, though, it’s hard NOT to think of your own mortality — and the feeling that someday you’ll be the one remembered.
Don Fisher, now 63, says he sometimes notices old boot camp photos at ceremonies and has an eerie feeling of familiarity. “You think to yourself, you know that guy’s YOUR age,” he says. “It’s just very strange.”
Fisher, a Purple Heart recipient injured by a booby trap in Vietnam, also says he’s a bit surprised to be part of something connected to the military after a lifetime as an engineer in the corporate world.
“The Vietnam generation, you came home and you just put it away,” he says. “I wasn’t ashamed ... but you had to get back to your life.”
“Now 25, 30, 40 years later, you’re doing something good and honorable,” he says, and “maybe it’s a chance to do the salutes you didn’t get — or the ones you would have liked to see yourself.”
George Weiss has plans for his final salute.
He has a 2-foot-tall solid brass shell casing from a 105mm howitzer that will house his cremated remains; it was purchased on eBay.
He wants to be buried on a Friday, so his squad can do the honors.
He doesn’t want anyone to play “Taps.” He prefers “Reveille.”
Why a song marking the beginning of a new day? Maybe, he says, it’s a message to the heavens: “Look out, here I come.”
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