November 2011 Issue
My Ohio: Final Salute
A group of veterans makes sure their comrades in arms are laid to rest with proper honors.
Their days of military service may be past, but they still put on their uniforms, still pick up their rifles, still serve their country and one another.
At Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery in Medina County, an average of eight veterans or members of their families are laid to rest each day —sometimes as many as 12 or 13 per day. More than 18,000 interments have taken place here since the 273-acre cemetery opened in 2000.
And for each former service member’s funeral, a group of volunteers — veterans of conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan — gathers to provide military honors.
It may be blazing hot or it may be snowing sideways. There may be hundreds of mourners in attendance or there may be only a funeral director with a flag-draped casket. It doesn’t matter. Thirty-four honors teams take turns making sure each veteran, regardless of circumstances, receives a final salute.
When families request military honors, they sometimes picture the big 21-gun salutes they see in the movies, says OWRNC director Gil Cody. Instead, they receive something much more personal.
A squad of three to eight men and women, often in their 70s and 80s, often wearing different uniforms representing his or her branch of the military, stand at attention. At the appropriate moment in the service, they fire off three volleys from World War II-vintage rifles, using blank ammunition.
As the shots echo and fade, the mournful notes of “Taps” are sounded on a bugle. Two active-duty service members fold the U.S. flag from the casket and tenderly present it to the veteran’s family. Some teams add their own traditions — reading a poem or plucking spent rifle casings from the grass for children.
The honor teams provide a living connection between a loved one and the country he or she served. It’s their presence — and determination to be there despite the weather or their own infirmities — that makes the service meaningful.
“The effect is just immeasurable,” says Cody, himself a 26-year Army veteran.
Many honors teams represent organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. The 555th Honors Detachment from Wayne County formed specifically to serve the national cemetery.
Elton Boyer, 80, is one of its founders. He recalled a day last winter when sleet was falling so sharply, it burned when it hit their skin. It wasn’t enough to keep them from honoring a brother in arms.
“That service member took an oath to defend the Constitution,” says Boyer, who served 35 years in the Army Reserve. “If they’re willing to do that, by golly, it’s the least we can do.”
If you haven’t visited Ohio Western Reserve, do. Driving along a country road, your first sight of the national cemetery is a tall flagpole rising dramatically among the hay and cornfields.
A winding double driveway lined with 50 American flags sweeps you inside. When the breeze is blowing — and here on a hilltop surrounded by farmland, it’s always blowing — the snaps and halyards ping against the flagpoles like a chorus of bells.
The driveway deposits you at the foot of a lush green mall the size of a football field. And that’s when you see them — the laser-straight lines of identical gray-white markers, row upon row, inscribed with the names of service members. Every stone is the story of a life, sometimes two when the name of a spouse is carved on the other side.
It’s a cemetery that feels like a farm, which it was. The markers follow the landscape left by the glaciers, some set into gentle slopes or tucked against wooded ravines. A footpath wanders through a grove of old apple trees, offering thoughtful solitude.
As you take it all in, you hear the crack of three rifle volleys somewhere in the distance. You know it’s the sound of a grateful nation saying thank you to a citizen-soldier who responded to the call of duty.
And you know it’s also the sound of veterans who continue to answer the same call.
John Gladden is a writer based in Seville. His column collection,
How to Elevate a Cow, is available from woosterbook.com.