LATHAM, N.Y.— By midnight on Dec. 31, New York's Army and Air National Guard will have conducted military funerals for 11,170 veterans during 2017.
Those honored range from 19-year old New York Army National Guard Specialist Joseph Nelk from Pittsford, New York, who died from apparent natural causes on Dec. 10 and was buried on Dec. 23; to 87 year-old Lawrence Ostwald of Saratoga Springs, who served in the Army during the Korean War. He died on Dec. 11 and was interred on Dec. 15.
This number is down from the 12,019 military funeral services the New York National Guard provided during 2016.
The decline in the number of funerals appears to be because of the aging and passing of World War II veterans, said Peter Moran, the New York Army National Guard State Military Funeral coordinator. Anecdotally it appears that the peak of World War II veteran deaths due to old age has passed and there are fewer of those veterans left, he explained.
As of Dec. 20, the New York Army National Guard Honor Guard had conducted 8,707 military funeral services. The teams expect to conduct another 330 by New Year's Eve, according to Moran.
The New York Air National Guard's Honor Guard teams had performed 2,097 military funeral services by Dec. 20 and anticipated conducting 45 more by the end of the year.
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 runs a centralized program with eight regional offices.
Three offices serve the population of New York City and Long Island while also providing services in the lower Hudson Valley. By the end of 2017 the Long Island, Queens and Bronx locations expect to conduct 5,254 services, according to Moran.
The Army Guard program has 32 Soldiers working full-time in the Honor Guard program and 107 part-time Soldiers who fill in when required.
Providing military honors at funerals is an important duty that requires tremendous attention to detail and training, said Staff Sgt. Tomas Couvertier, a Bronx resident and the non-commissioned officer in charge of the New York Army National Guard Honor Guard program.
Whether they do it full-time or part-time, all members of the Honor Guard go through a training program to teach them the precise movements required, Couvertier said.
"There is a great deal of pride in representing the military in these last events," he said. "The families are always very appreciative. They always say thank you. Sometimes they want to hug you."
The New York Air National Guard provides funeral honors through Honor Guards at each of its five wings—located in Niagara Falls, Syracuse, Schenectady, Newburgh and Westhampton Beach on Long Island—and the Eastern Air Defense Sector in Rome.
The New York Air National Guard has 21 Airmen who conduct funeral honors full time and another 80 who can be called on when needed.
The 106th Rescue Wing expects to conduct 752 funeral services by the end of 2017, several hundred more than any of the other wings.
The 106th Honor Guard has five full-time members and covers Long Island, New York City, part of New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, said Staff Sgt. Dewayne Morgan, the honor guard non-commissioned officer in charge and a Queens resident. Their area includes two national cemeteries on Long Island.
The 106th Honor Guard gets assignments from officials at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and provides funeral honors for veterans of the Air Force or of the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor of the Air Force, Morgan explained.
The honor guard members serve three years on active duty and get very good at their job, he explained.
"I look at every fallen Airman as one of my own brothers. Our goal is to provide the best military honors possible," Morgan said.
Along with providing funeral honors for veterans, the New York Army National Guard Honor Guard also conducts dignified transfer ceremonies during which the remains of Soldiers who died overseas are brought home.
These can be for current Soldiers like Army Guard Spec. Joseph Nelk, from Pittsford, or Sgt. Roshain Brooks, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division from Brooklyn, who was killed in Iraq in August, 2017.
Or it can be for the remains of Soldiers from prior wars, like those of Lt. Robert Mains, a World War II pilot who died in 1945, and whose remains were returned to Long Island on Nov. 30, 2017 and met by a New York Army National Guard Honor Guard led by Couvertier.
Soldiers who conduct the Honor Guard missions know that what they do is important for families and the Army, said Couvertier, who estimates he has conducted 2,000 funerals since 2008.
"When I'm up there in front of everybody I don't think necessarily about what I have to do next, I think about how much of an honor it is to stand before these families and render the final honors for their loved ones," said Sgt. Ramon Rodriguez, an Honor Guard member from Stillwater.