On a frigid Tuesday, six old soldiers stood sentinel, stiff-backed and rifle ready, for the funeral of a veteran they didn’t know.
As the family solemnly gathered in a glass shelter, the Fort Logan All Veterans Honor Guard riflemen waited at attention outside, and when the service was over, they performed a three-rifle volley — three shots into the air — in perfect sequence.
As the moms, dads, sons and daughters drove away, the honor guard broke away and did the same thing for three more military brothers at Fort Logan National Cemetery.
They looked cold, breathing mist, but many of them fought overseas, which was a lot more uncomfortable than standing for a couple of chilly hours on American soil.
“One of us, he lost a leg in Vietnam. I never was in combat, but I’m out here because I feel the duty to honor these veterans and their families,” says Greg May, a silver-haired former lieutenant who served in the Army Corps of Engineers from 1972-77. “And no ma’am, I’m not cold.”
On this October day, there were nearly 500 school and office cancellations in the Denver area due to an early deep freeze, but Fort Logan was snow-covered and open for business.
“We serve a noble cause. If we honor our veterans for what they did at the beginning of their lives there ought to be recognition when they leave this world and our ceremony does just that,” says Maury Smith, 80, the team coordinator.
Smith gave part of his own youth to the Air Force during some of the bloodiest conflicts of the Vietnam War. An airborne gunner, he flew 130 combat missions over Laos on an AC-130 gunship. He was 26 for the first year-long tour in 1965 and 31 for the second in 1969.
It’s a full-time job managing what can amount to five funerals a day. Smith coordinates with the funeral homes and with Fort Logan staff to keep his teams on time. For free.
No one gets paid to attend these ceremonies. The all-volunteer group started tiny but determined, just three people out of Lakewood’s American Legion Post 179. They were a ragtag band of retired vets who answered the call stateside as they watched a new generation of their own enter Desert Storm in 1991. Those three founding members have since died.
Since then, the guard has grown. From 1993 to 2000, it went from one team to two, and then added two more in 2000. By 2012, there were five teams of 100 men and women who perform the service for every single honorably discharged veteran buried at Fort Logan.
There are more than 411,000 veterans currently living in Colorado, and more than half of them are 60 years old or older, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 14,000 of the state’s veterans served during World War II. Nationally, nearly 300 WWII veterans die each day, the VA has estimated.
Fort Logan National Cemetery’s 214 acres hold the graves of more than 140,000 veterans and their spouses. It averages about 4,000 burials a year, says James O’Neal Hughes, a staff assistant whose job includes giving tours of the cemetery. Some days can see 20 or more burials. Hughes says there has been no discernible trend up or down in burial numbers in recent years.
“It fluctuates,” he says.
Fort Logan, which hosted its first burial in 1889 and became a national cemetery in 1950, has enough space for 30 more years, Hughes says. The cemetery holds the graves of three Medal of Honor recipients.
Generals and grunts
Smith remembers a scared and frail widow who’d lost her husband after 70 years of marriage who wouldn’t let go of Smith’s hand.
“I held it,” he says, and he missed the next ceremony “so she wouldn’t be alone.”
There was the brother of a deceased veteran who, on the journey to the funeral, had a heart attack. Since he would have been the only one at the remembrance, the honor guard stood in for him over the flag-draped coffin.
And if mourners aren’t familiar with the protocol, sometimes the row of riflemen doesn’t get noticed at all.
The guard’s members represent all branches of service and all ranks. They have stood for heroes and homeless, generals and grunts.
Years ago, the Fort Logan All Veterans Honor Guard found itself showing up for so many soldiers who died homeless with no one to remember them, they had to do something. So Smith added a special service one Saturday each month for every veteran who died alone and in a bad way.
Anyone interested in joining the All Veterans Honor Guard can contact Maury Smith at (303) 927-7615 or (303) 589-7088.
“Each of their names was called off and we rang the bell,” Smith says.
That observance has expanded to include not just homeless veterans, but any retired military person laid to rest that month who didn’t get honors. Many times it’s simply because families don’t know about the honor guard, or because there is no family left alive to inquire about a remembrance of any kind. This past September, the bell rang for 40 veterans.
The uniform is simple and paid for through donations: black parade shoes, a gray cap, gray slacks and blue blazers with a name tag and white gloves. But when one of their own dies, the team wears black gloves. Last Wednesday, the guard donned black gloves for Christopher “Saint” Nielsen Jr., who became the 25th member of the guard to die.
Smith and the Saint
For 15 years, Smith and Saint stood side by side in salute for countless lost brothers and sisters in arms. Smith was the commander and Saint was the chaplain.
“He had a wonderful, deep baritone,” May says. “I couldn’t help but think how soothing it was to the families when it came time for prayers.”
Last March, Saint had a stroke. And then another this summer. He died on Oct. 30.
When Saint, a Navy veteran, was laid to rest at Fort Logan, an 18-man rifle squad stood at attention in the wind and cold. Smith led the service with another friend, Bob “Tiny” Whitehill, nicknamed because even in his 80s he carries himself straight at 6-foot-4.
When the tribute was over, Saint’s widow, Bev, received the American flag folded in a tight triangle.
The crack of rifle fire rang out 21 times. Joe “Lips” Pettrow played “Taps.”
“The hardest part is when we do it for our own team,” chokes Smith, whose eyes are hidden beneath his Army-issue sunglasses.
After the funeral, dozens of the All Veterans Honor Guard piled into Nielsen’s favorite hangout, the American Legion #1, to toast the man who was patient and good and requested that his ashes be placed inside a metal .50-caliber GI ammunition box.
“When you lose a comrade like that,” May says, “it takes a piece out of you.”
Staff writer John Ingold contributed to this story.