Guard's Military Funerals Unit Does 'Difficult Job' With Dignity and Respect
By Jennifer McDermott
The Day
December 31, 2010
Their job is to honor deceased veterans and fellow soldiers, but the members of a select Connecticut National Guard unit say they're the ones who are honored.

The Guard's military funeral honors team travels the state to fold the U.S. flag, play taps and oversee the firing squad at funerals to show the state's appreciation for those who have served.

In the past year alone, the 13 full-time Guardsmen in the unit, along with about 50 soldiers who volunteer to help, participated in more than 3,000 military funerals for former Army soldiers and members of the other services.

"I come from a long line of military in my family - grandfather, father, uncles, cousins - so for me there's no greater honor than to be at these funerals for those that came before," said Sgt. Joseph Rogers, a senior team member who has gone to more than 175 funerals this year.

The team's work has been in the spotlight at funerals for soldiers killed in combat. They carried the casket of Sgt. Steven J. DeLuzio, a South Glastonbury native who was killed in August in Afghanistan while serving in the Vermont National Guard.

The team also participated in the services for Staff Sgt. Edwin Rivera, a Waterford soldier killed in May in Afghanistan.

"For us it was an honor and very impressive to perceive the performance they demonstrated," Gladys Rivera said of the team's performance at her son's funeral.

"Their courage, firmness, respect, honor and valor is ... to be admired. How they were able to stand firm as they held and carried the casket of one of their own, our son Edwin, as well as how they folded the flag with such a perfection to be passed on to the family."

The high-profile funerals are not the norm, however. Typically the team goes to funerals for veterans, often from the World War II era, where only the veteran's loved ones see the team's work.

Each week, about 60 funerals are held in the state for veterans who received an honorable or good conduct discharge, a requirement for military burial honors.

On a gusty December morning, Rogers and another team member, Cpl. Matthew Kiewlen, waited at the St. Nicholas Cemetery in Norwich for the family of a local World War II veteran to arrive. With the wind-chill factor, it was 6 degrees.

John Bosko of Preston died Dec. 4 at the age of 89. He joined the Army in 1942 as a member of the 9th Infantry Division, the "Old Reliables," then worked in the plumbing trades for four decades.

Rogers and Kiewlen saluted as the hearse pulled up and the family members filed out of their cars. Then the two soldiers marched to the gravesite. After the playing of taps, they removed the flag from the top of the casket, and Kiewlen folded it 13 times toward Rogers, who then presented it to Staff Sgt. Bosko's widow, Alexandria.

After, Bosko's son, Phillip, thanked them for the service. Rogers said it meant a lot to the team to be a part of the funeral for Bosko, who had been awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

"We have the utmost respect for him and what he has done," Rogers said. "It really paves the way for us and everything that we have today."

Not depressing work

First Lt. Michael Vaughan leads the military funeral honors team, making sure they train often enough, follow the standards set by the National Guard Bureau for military funerals and, importantly, look and act the part. The team members, he said, must be physically fit so they look good in uniform, and must be professional.

"It's a very difficult job," Vaughan said. "My soldiers deal with death every day, so we want people who are both physically and mentally fit."

Vaughan said the team's goal is to be as good, if not better, than the service members doing the same duties during funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

"It's a lofty goal," he said, "but that's our goal."

Spc. Peter Pacanski joined the team earlier this year after he returned from his first deployment to Iraq. Since then, he has gone to about 130 funerals. People ask him if the work is depressing. He doesn't look at it that way.

"I just try to think of the nice thing I'm doing and how important it is, and it just makes it a good thing rather than a depressing thing," he said.

Pacanski and the team had just spent more than an hour at the Hartford Armory reviewing where to stand by the casket while saluting and practicing folding the flag using two people, then three. It was two days before the Bosko funeral.

"My actual profession or job skill within the Army is a helicopter mechanic, and when I came back from deployment I didn't think I'd be doing this," Pacanski said. "But it's turned out to be something I enjoy doing.

"We're there for the family. We're able to give them that final goodbye."