SEBRING — A group of volunteers dresses up, goes to funerals, makes a small speech, interacts with the family and shoots into the air three times.
If they have enough people with them, the rifle volley amounts to a 21-shot salute to honor a departed veteran.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4300 Honor Guard for the last 30-40 years has attended funerals to honor departed veterans. They have 20 active members, said Mike Rogers, captain with the Honor Guard. Two more want to join, as soon as the Honor Guard can formally induct them.
They have gone to a funeral or a major public event with as many as 10-12 people, or as few as four, but will always go when called, said Honor Guard Cmdr. Harry Stewart Jr.
“We are a unique honor guard,” Stewart said. “We have speakers who get up and talk and wish the family well. It’s quite a ceremony we put on.”
They provide each veteran with a burial flag, volley and Taps, along with words of encouragement for the family. The Honor Guard covers primarily Highlands County, but has been known to attend funerals as far off as Desoto, Hardee or Polk counties.
Friday found them at the funeral of U.S. Air Force veteran and Sebring native James Dennis ‘Denny’ MontsDeOca at Bougainvillea Cemetery in Avon Park. An additional honor guard from the U.S. Air Force folded and presented the burial flag.
At the service, Honor Guard members told the family that their comrade is with God now and implored all to honor every virtue that he showed as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, until all are called to God’s congregation.
The Honor Guard then gave a rifle volley — best done with seven shooters, but possible with fewer — and the playing of Taps. Rogers said the U.S. Army donated their refurbished World War II-era M1 rifles, along with all the blanks they need.
He describes each wooden-stocked weapon as a “9-pound log,” with renewed respect to how much weight the troops had on them as they waded ashore on D-Day.
The Honor Guard has provided services at Memorial Day ceremonies, dedications — such as the Highlands County 9/11 Memorial at Fire Station 10 on Hammock Road — and even flag raisings. When Alan Jay Ford first raised its giant American flag, Honor Guard members ensured it didn’t touch the ground.
Activities slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rogers said. In 2020, they did 48-50 funerals, but in 2021, calls rebounded to 92, an average of two per week.
Staffing those events is not always easy, partly because it’s a volunteer corps and partly because people become busy in retirement.
“Unfortunately, most of us are old. It’s hit and miss,” Stewart said. “We will do all we can to show up at a funeral no matter how many [we have].”
The good news is the level of community and fellow veteran support they get. AMVETS (American Veterans); American Legion Posts 25, 69, and 74, and the Disabled American Veterans — to name a few — helped the Honor Guard secure their van. It serves them well, but has suffered from age. Stewart and Rogers said the hand-me-over 2006 Ford van from another veterans organization just had a rusted-through spot repaired on the hood and has more rust eating away at the roof. It also has 170,000 miles on the odometer.
Stewart said the engine doesn’t have long to go. So far, VFW Post 4300 has raised $28,000, about half of the $52,000 cost of a new van, which doesn’t include putting their name on it.
Those who want to help can visit VFW Post 4300 at 1041 Lakeview Drive in Sebring, or call Rogers at 863-633-8807.