By Eric Durr
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs
HUDSON, N.Y. (12/27/13) - The New York Military Forces Honor Guard expects to have provided funeral services for just over 10,000 families in 2013 by the time 2014 arrives at midnight Dec. 31.
For the New York Army National Guard team, this is slightly less than the 10,175 funerals the New York Military Forces Honor Guard conducted in 2012, and well below the peak of 10,752 military funerals conducted in 2011.
This decline is not unexpected as the World War II generation, with its millions of service members, ages and passes, said Chief Warrant Officer Ryan Comstock, the honor guard officer-in-charge.
The Honor Guard anticipates performing about 265 funerals before 2013 ends, said Staff Sgt. Erwin Dominguez, the operations sergeant for the Honor Guard. As of Dec. 23, 2013, the New York Military Forces Honor Guard has provided services for 9,735 ceremonies.
During 2013, the Honor Guard also performed its 100,000th funeral since it first organized in 1999, Comstock added.
Since 2000, federal law has mandated that any military veteran who did not receive a dishonorable discharge from the armed forces is eligible for military honors at his or her funeral. The ceremony must include the folding and presenting of the flag of the United States to the veteran's survivors and the playing of Taps.
The New York Army National Guard Honor Guard employs 35 Soldiers on a full-time basis to man the funeral details and calls upon 135 other Soldiers on an as-needed basis to help, Comstock said. They operate from eight regional offices. About a third of the Honor Guard Soldiers are women.
Doing the job is incredibly rewarding, said Pvt. Shelbi Vanderbogart, a member of the 206th Military Police Company who lives in Averill Park, N.Y.
"This is a great privilege," said Vanderbogart, who has provided services at more than 150 funerals since he joined the Honor Guard in May, 2013.
At least two members of the armed forces must be present for the ceremony. The New York Honor Guard normally sends two Soldiers to fold the flag and play Taps, Dominguez said.
The federal law requires that at least one of the service members at a veteran's funeral must be from the deceased veteran's service.
Veterans who served for 20 years or more and retired from the military, those who received certain medals for heroism for their service, general officers and Soldiers who have died in combat receive more elaborate services.
A veteran in this category of "full military honors" can receive a nine-member detail which provides pall bearers who can also serve as the firing party for a final three-volley salute with rifles loaded with blanks, a bugler and Soldiers to fold the flag and present it to the next of kin, according to Army regulations.
More members can be added to the funeral detail, which includes a military chaplain and separate pall-bearers and firing party if available. This is normally done for the funeral of a service member killed in action.
The New York Honor Guard has been performing more than 10,000 funerals annually since the federal law in 2000 mandating military funerals for veterans.
New York is home to 943,000 veterans, according to the most recent Department of Veterans Affairs statistics from late 2012. Of those veterans, more than 300,000 are age 65 and older.
Originally the bulk of the veterans being buried by the Honor Guard were from the World War II generation, Comstock said. Now that is starting to shift to those who served in The Korean War (1950 to 1953) and the families of more and more Vietnam Era veterans are now asking for services from the Honor Guard, he said.
The busiest Honor Guard office is on Long Island, Comstock said, which handled 3,518 military funerals as of Dec. 23. The office based in Horseheads, N.Y., handled the fewest military funerals at 607 during 2013.
The large population in the New York City/Long Island region and the presence of the Long Island National Cemetery and Calverton National Cemetery accounts for the larger number, Comstock said.
The New York Army National Guard Military Forces Honor Guard was launched in 1999 as a state-funded effort. Since 2000, the federal government has funded the program, with some state financial support in the past.
Currently, the federal government covers the cost of the Honor Guard: $2.3 million in fiscal year 2013, with $1.95 million budgeted for fiscal year 2014, which began Oct. 1.
All Honor Guard members must go through a week-long training program in drill and ceremonies to qualify as Honor Guard members, Comstock said.
The New York Honor Guard normally provides services at the funeral of Army veterans, historically the largest of the services, but can provide services for any veteran if the veteran's service cannot provide a detail.
Funeral home directors are responsible for contacting one of the Honor Guard's local offices when a deceased veteran's family requests military funeral honors. Families are asked to provide proof of the deceased service, normally the Department of Defense Form 214, known as a DD214, which service members receive when they leave the military, or an honorable or general discharge certificate.
One of the most critical moments at any military funeral is the playing of Taps, the Civil War-era bugle call which has signified a dignified end to a service member's life since then.
Taps at more than 90 percent of the funerals the New York Military Forces conduct each year is played on a ceremonial or electronic bugle, Comstock said. This is a bugle with an electronic device inside which plays the tune.
More than 16,000 are in use across the country, although live human buglers are used when appropriate.
Prior to this innovation, Taps at most Honor Guard funerals was provided as a recording with a boom box or other music device.
Military Funeral services provided by New York Military Forces Honor Guard regional Offices for 2013 as of Dec. 23: