Last Respects

Honor guard committed to ensuring all veterans receive proper send-off

Story:RAY KISONAS — Photos:TOM HAWLEY

When Bob Cebina was part of a secretive search-and-rescue team stationed along the Mekong River in Laos, the crew decreed they would pursue a mission anytime and anyplace.

It was during the Vietnam War, and if a pilot went down, the sirens would wail and the 56th Air Commando Wing would spring into action, no matter if a monsoon created zero visibility.

“No matter what,” Bob said. “If a pilot or crew went down, those guys were there.”

In many ways, the “anytime, anyplace” philosophy is practiced today with the Honor Guard Ritual Team from Monroe Post 1138, Veteran of Foreign Wars. Made up of 28 members, the color guard team attends up to 115 funerals a year and another 15 or so annual events, such as parades.

If it is to attend the services for a fallen veteran, the team will do everything in its power to be there. And members never fail, no matter the weather.

“All veterans deserve that final call,” said Dan Burchfield, 67, an Army veteran and team member from Monroe. “We’re all pretty adamant about that.”

The eldest member is Al Yensz, 87, of Monroe. A World War II veteran who dodged snipers as a member of the occupied forces in the Pacific, Al said he has served 17 years on the honor guard and is the flag bearer. His reasons for joining the team are simple.

“I’m patriotic,” Al said. “I believe in America.”

Al enlisted at 16 because he had to get away. He worked at the paper mills in addition to putting in hours on the family farm on Blue Bush Rd. One day while milking cows, he convinced his mother to sign the papers so he could join.

“Instead of being mad at me, my dad was proud of me,” he recalled.

Al served in the 801st Engineer Company from 1946-49 and helped build landing strips. The local Japanese who lived on those islands were not happy at all with the Americans occupying their country.

“One lady came at me with a machete,” he recalled. “They didn’t like us one bit.”

Dan served in the Army from 1968-71. He spent 10 months in Vietnam with

the 716th Military Police Battalion protecting air bases and ambassadors. He said his sergeant didn’t like him and had it out for him. He was forced into “every little crappy detail.”

Dan said he proudly wears the dress uniform of the honor guard, which includes gold braids and scarves for special events and black braids and scarves for funerals. Members carry M-1 rifles and give the fallen a 21-gun salute.

“We get satisfaction knowing the veterans are getting the proper send-off,” Dan said. “It’s something they deserve.”

In addition to funerals for honorably discharged veterans, the team participates in many events for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and other services.

Bob, 69, who served in the Air Force from 1966-70, is the chairman of the honor guard and has been a member of the team since 1993. He reads the military prayer at services.

He said the post was established in 1933 and the honor guard was formed at least 50 years ago. The members are a dedicated group of military men who want to make sure that their fellow veterans are remembered for their service to the country.

Although attending dozens of funerals can be difficult emotionally, the hardes

t part, they say, is kneeling down before the widow or other family member to present the folded American flag. But they fight through those emotions in order to show the proper respect.

Still, it gets even more difficult when they gather to say good-bye and thank yo

u to one of their own. “That’s when we can hardly hold back,” Dan said. “That really

makes it hard. You just try to keep a stiff upper lip.”