To contact the Funeral Honor Guard, call Don Teske at (219) 736-3016.
Updated: April 20, 2014 6:14AM
The stone-faced Funeral Honor Guard members stood like statues while watching the flag-draped casket slowly pass.
On this chilly Monday morning, the military veterans waited more than an hour to honor the life, death and military service of World War II and Korean War veteran Austin Spain. The U.S. Army soldier from Hobart died March 13 at age 85.
“Honor Guard, atten-HUT!” one member yelled, snapping the other members to formal attention under the bright sun. “Pre-sent ARMS!”
Honor Guard bugler Richard Coy played “Amazing Grace” as dozens of mourners shuffled into the mausoleum at Calumet Park Cemetery in Merrillville.
An American flag flanked Spain’s casket, next to a podium where Honor Guard members John Rassbach and Harry Stempf waited to speak.
Prayers were read. Tears were shed. The other Honor Guard members stood behind the mourners, not saying a word or moving a muscle.
“Step forward now, you soldier, you’ve borne your burden well,” Stempf said, reciting “The Final Inspection.” “Walk peacefully on heaven’s streets, you’ve done your time in hell.”
Rassbach, an Air Force veteran, thanked Spain for serving his country and then turned to face his family: “We want to offer our sincere condolences to the family of a fellow comrade.”
Six other Honor Guard members then marched outside with loaded World War II-era rifles on their shoulder. They aimed them toward the heavens and one of them yelled, “Fire position!”
A second later, he ordered, “Ready! Fire!”
The loud gunshots into the air startled a few mourners.
He ordered again, “Ready! Fire!” And again, “Ready! Fire!”
Eighteen bullet casings bounced off the sidewalk. They were immediately collected, bagged and presented to Spain’s widow, along with a perfectly folded burial flag and other military mementos.
Coy played the 24-note, 57-second military taps, silencing the entire building. As the familiar song echoed around the spacious mausoleum, I felt goose-bumps race across my body.
I’ve attended and covered several military funerals through the years, including eight for local soldiers who died in combat. But I’ve never focused my attention on the Funeral Honor Guard, whose members volunteer to honor all vets, of any age, from any war.
“It’s all about the honor,” said Stempf, of Crown Point, before the funeral service.
“We are here to simply assist whichever military branch is involved,” said Rassbach, 71, of Portage.
Last year, they performed this solemn ceremony 123 times. This year they’ve already done it almost 20 times.
“We’re honored to do it,” said 60-year-old Vietnam veteran Carl Jones, who’s performed hundreds of these ceremonies since 2008.
Other members also are Indiana Patriot Guard members who feel compelled to honor other vets every time they get a chance.
“Many families remember us — and thank us again — long after the funeral service,” Rassbach said.
This 35-member Department of Defense Funeral Honor Guard is not affiliated directly with any veterans service organizations, and its members come from all military branches, different ranks and both genders. It’s based at American Legion Post 100 in Lake Station.
“We started doing funeral honors for all military veterans seven years ago,” Rassbach said. “We believe all veterans have earned this honor.”
They’ve performed the ceremonies with as few as two Guard members and as many as 12 or more. Whoever can show up does so.
Four years ago, the group was certified by the Indiana Army National Guard, when it learned how to properly fold the flag, present it to the next of kin, and the correct procedure to fire three rounds into the air.
Last year, the team was honored with the Funeral Guard Honors Ribbon, awarded for each 50 funeral missions.
Rain or snow, heat or humidity, these guys always show up. And, amazingly, they still get choked up at each ceremony.
“Today’s mission hits home for me,” Rassbach told me. “Austin Spain is my son’s wife’s grandfather. I did not know he was a veteran. I was shocked and then honored to learn our team was asked to do this mission.”
The vets are hoping more Northwest Indiana funeral homes contact their group to allow such “missions.” “Just give us the opportunity,” Stempf said.
“Today’s mission is a perfect example of what we do,” Rassbach added.
And, trust me, they did it perfectly.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.