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Military funeral honors display respect, thanks to veterans

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Tennessee Army National Guard conducts nearly 20 ceremonies a day for families of veterans

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

“This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.”

Those are words fitly spoken as a soldier presents a folded American flag to the family of a soldier or veteran as a military funeral honor ceremony comes to an end.

Those are the words that Col. (retired) Bill Hartbarger said in 1969 as he passed the flag to his best friend’s widow.  

“The hardest thing I ever did was to present that flag,” said the Lebanon resident, who flew a Cobra helicopter in Vietnam in 1969 when his close friend, Jim Brown, was killed in action.

“I remember very vividly to this day what it felt like to take the flag from the detail and kneel down and give it to his wife. Whether you are very close or not, it’s a sensitive, touching thing and that playing of ‘Taps’ will still make me tear up. Presenting the flag and playing ‘Taps’ is the heart-rending part for me. It’s just a very sad moment, but it’s also a moment of closure,” said Hartbarger, who after five years in the U.S. Army served 34 years as flight instructor for the Tennessee National Guard at Smyrna and as aviation commander for nine years.

For the past 20 months he has worked as an administrative assistant beside Col. (retired) Donnie Koonce, state coordinator, in the Tennessee Army National Guard Military Funeral Honor Program. Tennessee ranks the third-highest state in the country for the number of honor funerals provided. During 2008, there were 80,000 military funeral honors conducted nationally by the Army National Guard, 5,907 of them in Tennessee.

“I just think the greatest thing a person can do is serve their country in the military. To provide honors for these veterans is something we need to do,” said Hartbarger, 62, who stands 6-foot-1 and looks fit and robust enough that he could play middle linebacker in the NFL. He supports program coordinators in eight states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

“Anybody that is a veteran discharged out of the military with no dishonor is eligible. All a wife or next of kin has to say is, ‘I’d like to have military honors.’ They would ask the funeral home, and the funeral home contacts us,” Hartbarger said of the service which has no cost for the families.

There are approximately 560,000 veterans living in Tennessee, and an estimated 13,000 vets die annually.

“It’s a pretty big operation across the board. We did 571 funerals in December. That’s quite a few a day,” Hartbarger said.

“All our soldiers go through a 40-hour training course. They are always dressed in dress blues and white gloves. The bugler will blow ‘Taps’ and the team leader will present the flag to next of kin. These young men and women are sharp. It’s not lost on them. They really do take it to heart. I don’t know that I would want to do it day in and day out,” he said.

About 150 National Guardsmen across the state served at military funeral honors in 2008. It’s no easy assignment but it is conducted with great pride and respect.

“I try to keep a military bearing and not let my emotions get to me. That’s hard when you give the flag to a widow,” said Fred Sullivan of Mt. Juliet, a retired lieutenant colonel and budget analyst for the honor guard program. “You also have to remember the speech and to kneel over before you stand up and salute. The last one I did was my buddy. You’re real anxious to do a good job. It’s an honor to do it.”

“We had a young man killed in our unit who was 21. I considered him a friend as well as unit member,” said Sgt. Michael Johnson of Smyrna. “The emotional turmoil is unbearable. I just sat there and prayed that my family never goes through this, but I’m proud as well. There is a lot of pride for the family but sad as well. It’s a huge honor to do this for that family. Since I’ve been doing this, I wake up every morning happy to do the job.”

Pfc. Randall Laughlin of Smyrna said, “Each situation is unique. We do it with the most sense of respect for the family. It’s a humbling experience the first time. Since then the respect is still there but I have a calmer sense of purpose.”

About 41 percent of the families of deceased veterans ask for the honors. The majority of services are done for World War II veterans, but there are also those who served in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. Being assigned to combat is not a requirement to attain military funeral honors, as honors are also presented to veterans who served in peacetime.

There are three different categories of funeral honors. The veteran does not have to have served during wartime.

1) Any veteran can receive a three-man detail which includes the flag-folding detail and the sounding of ‘Taps.’

2) If they were on active duty or retired at time of death, they get a seven-man detail.

3) Those killed in action or recipients of The Medal of Honor winner merit a 21-man detail and chaplain.

Hartbarger, who retired in 2006 after serving as counter-drug coordinator for the state, finds his most recent assignment productive and challenging.

“What appeals to me most about this is providing honorable service. I look at that board, and every one of those guys or gals gets a flag and their family gets a closure. They earned the honors that we provide them,” he said. “You don’t really do it for the veteran. You do it for the families that the veterans left. They receive that folded flag and put it up and cherish it.

“If a soldier is killed in action, there is an Honorable Transfer of remains. Our soldiers meet the plane that brings the soldier home, prepares the casket for presentation, and we do the Honorable Transfer from plane to funeral home. The Honorable Transfer is a very emotional ordeal for the family.”

On Feb. 24, 1st Lt. William Eric Emmert, 36, with the Murfreesboro-based 269th Military Police Company of the Tennessee Army National Guard, gave his life while serving his country in Mosul, Iraq. He was the son of Bill and Brenda Emmert of Lebanon and a 1991 graduate of Lebanon High School. The Honorable Transfer of remains was provided, and he was given full military honors during his March 4 burial in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

“It was a distinct honor. We were greatly impressed with all the Tennessee National Guard people we were associated with,” said Bill Emmert. “We had a casualty assistance officer, Capt. Darrell Hull, who stayed with us 10 to 12 hours a day. And there were two lieutenants, one who came over with Eric’s body, and Eric’s best friend, Lt. Tommy Boleyn, who came home and stayed with us. We were very well taken care of by the National Guard.”

As for the funeral, Emmert said, “We were most impressed by the precision of the ceremony and the color guard and the folding of the flag. Our son had taken part in honor guard funerals down in Lincoln County, mostly for WWII veterans. He did that for two or three years and was greatly honored to take part in the ceremony.”Sgt. Major Bill Marley, a 39-year member of the Tennessee Army National Guard, has been with this program since 2005. He oversees policy for military honors funerals.

“We pretty much do it to Arlington standards. I don’t let anyone do a service unless they’re ready. We try to do it right,” he said. “Some of these guys have done 500 services, but we need to make each one of them as personal as possible.

“The Honorable Transfer is the most emotional thing we do. From the family’s standpoint, they’ve heard that knock on the door and been informed their loved one has been killed in action. From the time the family is notified until the remains arrive in Tennessee, the wait is usually a week to 10 days,” Marley said.

The remains of those killed in action go to the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, where they are prepared for burial. As the serviceman makes his final journey home, military personnel salute the dead at each transfer, from plane to hearse. Most come on small jets to towns with runways at least 5,000 feet long.

“When they first see the flag-draped coffin, the reality generally hits the family. It’s a very emotional time for them and the soldiers assigned to the ceremony,” Marley said.

Military services for our veterans generally fall into two categories, according to Marley. One, the family is all there, united and sad.

However, he noted, “On rare occasions, individually they may be bereaved, but there is family animosity. Time after time, regardless, when the flag folding and ‘Taps’ begin, that animosity gives way, and at this point of time they honor the deceased loved one.”

The headquarters of the Tennessee Army National Guard military funeral honors program in Smyrna is open every day but Christmas. It operates in four regions across the state with teams positioned so that they can drive to any service within an hour.

The current program began in 2003 with funding provided by the National Guard Bureau.

“With Colonels Koonce and Hartbarger, it’s all about the veteran,” Marley said. “Our only reason for existing is to service and honor that individual with tremendous compassion. One of these days, it’s gonna be one of us. We want our legacy to be in good shape with a solid foundation for this program to continue.”

The sergeant major, who makes his home in Franklin, puts the military funeral honors program into its rightful perspective.

“It’s that 82-year-old who went in at 18 and got out at 21 and went on about his life and raised his family. That Vietnam-era soldier that was drafted and did his two or three years. That grizzled 40-year-in-service vet as well as that 19-year-old who volunteered to serve knowing we were at war and who died. All deserve to have that same quality of service, regardless of when and where they served. There’s one common denominator, that flag over the coffin.”

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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