Tapped out

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"Honor guard, prepare to fire," a voice booms in the still of a cold Sunday morning. "Aim, fire!" The sharp crack of gunfire whips through the air outside the American Legion office. "Aim, fire!" the voice repeats. Again, in unison, seven men adorned in full military regalia pull the triggers on their rifles. "Aim, fire!" Finally, the chorus of gunshots is followed by the eerie, mournful sound of "Taps" being played by a bugler.

Bob Harbour, the leader of the Pine Castle Honor Guard and 56-year member of the American Legion, watches the 21-gun salute from the Legion office's entrance. A retired World War II Marine, Harbour dedicates a portion of his time nearly five days of week, every week, to the Legion.

Lately, the guard has been performing this particular ceremony with more and more frequency. Last year Harbour participated in 109 funerals -- more than double the previous year's count -- and already is on a pace to eclipse that mark this year. "We're getting to be pretty well known in the area," he says.

But demand and supply are on a collision course.

Sixty years ago, during the push to recruit for WWII, the U.S. government promised each and every soldier a full military burial. That promise went largely unfulfilled until 1999, when President Clinton issued an executive order guaranteeing veterans a military burial. In conjunction with that order, the Department of Defense instituted a policy, effective Jan. 1, that requires at least two military members and a "high quality" recording of "Taps" at every veteran's funeral, should the family so request.

The Pentagon, by its own admission, can't keep up. Personnel cuts and the closing of bases such as the Orlando Naval Training Center, combined with an aging -- and dying -- veteran population, mean there are simply not enough military personnel available to fulfill the order.

And with 572,000 U.S. veterans expected to die in the next year, that problem could become especially acute in Florida, which with an estimated 1.8 million military retirees is second in number only to California.

While Dyke Shannon, the department adjutant of Florida's American Legion, considers the DOD's new policy a "breath of fresh air," he admits the compliance has been less than perfect. He relates the story of one family that sought a military funeral for their recently deceased veteran. "We couldn't pull it together," he says, regretfully. "It's tough."

Without a military base to rely on, funeral directors turn to honor guards like Harbour's to provide the appropriate ceremony.

A tall, rugged-looking man with a finely combed head of white hair, Harbour takes pride in his honor guard work -- he sometimes uses the word "obligation" to describe it. He's served the guard for a long time, and took the helm after the founder and previous leader passed on.

But Harbour's group may not be able to perform the ceremony for too much longer. Quite simply, they're aging, too. Harbour estimates the average age of his group to be 70, and adds that, increasingly, doctor's appointments and other engagements keep the men from making it to the funerals -- a trek that Harbour says is sometimes "an all-day thing."

When Harbour's group can no longer continue, there might be no replacement, fears Mike Holland, director of the Wood-lawn Funeral Home. Families have been very understanding of the situation and are willing to have an honor guard in lieu of an actual military presence, and thus Holland hasn't encountered problems to date, he says. But in five or 10 years, he muses, the situation could be completely different -- and considerably worse.

Sensing the dilemma that lies ahead, the Pentagon is considering its options. One possibility might be to establish honor-guard duty as a full-time position within the military. But this seems unlikely, given the trend toward military downsizing.

The Pentagon also is seeking to entice National Guard members and reservists to serve in the funerals by offering them credit toward weekend drills, plus $50 and liability coverage. Shannon, however, doesn't think $50 will go a long way in convincing National Guard members to travel to the services.

A more viable solution, according to both Shannon and Harbour, lies in increased funding. Harbour wants the government to give the National Guard enough funds to cover the bills the honor guards incur. "It's expensive," Harbour says of his own experience.

Clinton's order and the ensuing DOD requirements are steps in the right direction, veterans' groups agree. But it remains an imperfect policy. As Harbour sees it, this is a responsibility the U.S. government -- for which he fought more than 50 years ago -- cannot shirk.

"They promise [veterans] all this stuff, and they don't come through with it," he says. "It's a crime. [Veterans] have to fight for everything they get -- even a burial."

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