Military Funerals Under Budget Strains
FORT GIBSON -- As Spc. Jason Shorter and his colleague make each of the 13 folds in the American flag and his fellow soldier plays taps, he knows the family of a deceased soldier or veteran is watching and listening.
Presenting that folded triangle of blue with white stars to the family to honor their loved one is one last show of appreciation for their service and sacrifice, one that family won't forget.
"It's a feeling that's indescribable, that this family knows why I'm there and what we're going to do," said Shorter, coordinator for the Eastern Office of the Oklahoma Army National Guard's Military Funeral Honors Program. The job involves "a lot of honor and a lot of pride."
Federal budget cuts are straining honor guard programs across the nation, reducing the number of full-time soldiers in Oklahoma who perform the service, coordinate the funeral details and maintain the skills of soldiers to the highest standards.
The funding for full-time soldiers to perform those services has been cut nearly in half in the last two years, while the number of services the Guard works has increased consistently, said Staff Sgt. Marvin Barbee, state coordinator for the Guard's Military Funeral Honors Program.
With the start of the current federal fiscal year on Oct. 1, the Oklahoma National Guard's budget for full-time staff to perform funeral details was about $287,000, Barbee said. The initial allocation in the last fiscal year was about $383,000, although an additional allocation in March added $169,000. In fiscal 2010, the state was allocated nearly $550,000 for the function.
In the last fiscal year, the Oklahoma Army National Guard provided services for 1,464 funerals. In 2008, the Guard served at about 770 funerals, Barbee said.
While he could send more soldiers to services in the past, a typical funeral detail now consists of two soldiers, the minimum required to fold the flag and play taps.
"You can always do more; we just have to do the minimum," Barbee said.
For a funeral with full honors, which includes a 21-gun salute and pallbearer service, the typical detail now would include nine soldiers, when 21 might have performed those duties in the past, Barbee said. Full honors are always used when a soldier is killed in action, Barbee said.
When the cuts for the current fiscal year went into effect, Barbee said his full-time staff was cut from 19 to six, with those soldiers who were cut moving to part time. There are 27 soldiers who are currently on part-time orders, he said.
If the National Guard is stretched too thin, the U.S. Army or Army Reserve can help pick up the slack, but the Oklahoma National Guard performs about 90 percent of the military services in the state, Barbee said. He said he or the full Army detail doesn't expect to have to turn away any families who request the service.
"They made it a big deal to take the burden off the active duty and to make it a more specialized program," Barbee said. "They wanted it done well."
Barbee said he expects that additional funds could come through later in the fiscal year, as they did in the spring, but it's not something he can count on. He has to budget as if the money they have now is all they'll have for full-time soldiers.
The funding for part-time soldiers and supplies is also thin, but the state has sometimes helped with vehicles and supplies in the past, Barbee said.
Despite the cuts, Oklahoma National Guard soldiers say the service they provide to grieving families is important, a show of support from a grateful nation.
"The feeling you get when you drive away knowing the impact you had on that family -- for the rest of their lives that'll be something that family will never forget," Shorter said. "We take a lot of honor and a lot of pride in what we do."
Shorter helped fold the flag Thursday for a family at Fort Gibson National Cemetery, where he also had been the previous two days for funeral details.
All of the Guard members who are on the detail volunteer for the service. They go to Arkansas to be trained by former instructors at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. That makes the service consistent and precise within inches.
"When a lot of soldiers finally get a job, finally get to go on their first service, it really, really hits them," Shorter said. "Our whole thing is silent. Every soldier is trained to know exactly what's going to happen."
Cliff Garrett, a funeral director at Green Country Funeral Home in Tahlequah, which arranged the services the honor guard worked Thursday, said having the soldiers at a veteran's burial provides a memorable service for a grateful family.
"When the servicemembers walk up and fold the flag, the manner they do it is so professional," Garrett said. "It's just amazing to watch. When that flag is presented, it's a moving experience."
It's that impact and show of appreciation that Barbee said will keep his soldiers volunteering and driving for hours to these services.
"It's most likely the last impression the family will have of the military," Barbee said. "We don't want the last thing a family thinks is we didn't take care of their family member. It's all about honoring that veteran for their service."
Oklahoma Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Marvin Barbee said every soldier deserves the military honors, but it is often up to the family to notify the funeral home to request the service. Anyone with questions about the program is asked to call Barbee at 405-228-5089 or ask their funeral home.