LATHAM, N.Y. - The New York Army National Guard's Honor Guard performed more military funerals in 2011 - more than 10,500 - than in any time since it was started in 1999, and last year 10,415 were performed, said the program's director.
As of Dec. 16, the Honor Guard has performed 10,547 funerals, Roy said. He expects to do more than 10,600 funerals by New Year's Day 2012, said Don E. Roy, who has been director since 2003.
The bulk of these funerals, more than 90 percent, were for veterans of the Second World War, he said.
The 60 Soldiers who work full-time with the Honor Guard and the 70, who participate in funerals on a part-time basis, work out of nine offices located across the state from Long Island to Buffalo.
On average, the New York Honor Guard, which took first place in the last National Guard Honor Guard competition in 2010, conducts 900 funerals each month.
While the bulk of funerals have been for World War II veterans, the Honor Guard is now participating in the funerals of more and more Korean War veterans and Vietnam War veterans, Roy said.
The Honor Guard has participated in the funerals of the 32 New York Army National Guard Soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, although there were no funerals for New York National Guard Soldiers in 2011.
However, the Honor Guard did participate in 10 repatriated remains ceremonies in 2011, Roy said. These were cases in which remains from past wars were finally identified and laid to rest.
The reason for the increase in funerals, aside from deaths in an aging population, is that more people are becoming aware that their loved one may be entitled to military honors at their funeral, Roy said.
Any veteran, with an honorable discharge, whether they served during peacetime or wartime, whether they retired or not, is entitled to military honors at their funeral, Roy said.
Since the program started in 1999, the New York Military Forces Honor Guard has participated in more than 88,000 funerals for serving service members and veterans.
"People are starting to hear about us, and we are proud to honor those who served." Roy said.
Federal law requires that at least two Honor Guard members, from the parent service of the deceased, be present to play taps, fold and present a flag to the next of kin for all former Soldiers when requested by the family or a designated representative.
For most of those funerals, the Honor Guard sends three members whenever possible. Soldiers killed in action, general officers, retired general officers, retired sergeants major and Medal of Honor holders require many more Soldiers.
The Honor Guard's primary function is to provide military honors at the funerals of Army, Army Reserve, Army Air Corps, and National Guard Veterans, Roy said. The Honor Guard will fill in when the other services cannot provide military honors if time permits, he said.
Honor Guard Soldiers go through a week-long training program before they go out into the community to represent the Army and the Army National Guard.
It's a demanding program. The key is to focus on the drill moves required and attention to detail in uniform appearance, said Army Spc. Vanessa Banks, an Honor Guard member since 2010.
"You're the last military representative of the United States Army the family gets to see," she explained. "There is a real sense of satisfaction. It makes you really proud."
New York's Military Forces Honor Guard was established as a state-financed program in 1999 by then Gov. George Pataki. Soldiers who participated in funerals were paid by state active duty dollars.
In 2000, federal law changed to mandate military honors for all former Soldiers and the federal government began funding the Honor Guard as well. Now the Honor Guard is funded entirely by the federal government, Roy said.
The Honor Guard Soldiers, both full-time and part-time, are volunteers who continue to train with their Army National Guard units and most of the members have deployed into combat zones.
The Honor Guard has been conducting more than 10,000 funerals annually since 2007.