Coronavirus Pandemic – Honor Guard Soldiers Provide a Socially Distanced Final Salute
New York City Strong news – BUFFALO, N.Y.: New York National Guard Capt. Avery Schneider reports 5.25.2020. Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Army National Guard’s Military Funeral Honors Program continues to provide final salutes to Army veterans.
But the Army Service Uniform worn by Honor Guard members now includes a black cloth face-mask, and no more than three Soldiers will provide funeral honors.
Traditional parts of the ceremony, including the detail leader kneeling before a family member and carefully handing them the flag, have also been eliminated to ensure social distancing requirements are met.
The changes have been made to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s health guidance for controlling the coronavirus.
On a warm and cloudy morning on May 14, 2020, Sgt. Nikole Clark and Spc. Austin Dycha stepped out of their cars at Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, New York to conduct a ceremony under these new rules.
The two-member honor guard team surveyed the cemetery’s granite-walled mausoleum and began final preparations for the funeral of Raymond Kegler, a corporal in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II.
They donned jackets and service caps, brushed off lint, and pulled on white gloves.
Then they added the newest part of their uniforms: black cloth masks.
The masks are the primary protection against COVID-19, now required during funeral honors.
The New York Army National Guard’s Military Funeral Honors Program was performing an average of 850 services per month, statewide.
Since the pandemic hit New York in March, the average is down to 350.
“Although veterans are passing, some cemeteries are not allowing honors to be performed at the moment,” explained 1st Lt. Melisa Rosario, the officer in charge of the program.
Two types of ceremonies would normally be available: modified full honors for retirees with 20 or more years of service, or those who died while on active duty; or modified honors for Army veterans with an honorable discharge. Nine soldiers, including a firing party, perform the modified full honors. Only two perform the modified honors.
Based on National Guard Bureau guidelines, a maximum of three soldiers are currently allowed at a funeral, so New York’s program is only offering modified honors.
Where they are permitted, each individual ceremony is directed by a detail leader like Clark, who has the duty of presenting the burial flag to the veteran’s family.
“The detail leader will determine how safe they feel at the service and has the option to place the flag six feet from the next of kin, or on the casket,” Rosario said.
Soldiers like Clark and Dycha are dealing with a lot of uncertainty as they perform the time-honored traditions of the final salute.
Small details like which way a funeral procession arrives at the cemetery are normally the same each time, which meant they knew where to stand and how the ceremony would play out.
But new restrictions on which gates vehicles enter from, and caskets sometimes interred before a service begins, mean Clark and Dycha have to adjust quickly to each situation.
“We’re trained to manage it and think on our feet. We make it work, whatever we’ve got to do,” Clark said.
Limits on attendees at a service don’t just apply to the honor guard. They impact the number of family members allowed to attend funerals, too.
“We’ve done services where it’s hundreds of people there, and now it’s a handful of people,” Clark explained. “And once in a while you get them live-streaming, too. It’s not really something you saw before.”
Clark has performed over 700 funeral honors. The steps become near-muscle memory.
She said what took the most getting used to was not kneeling in front of the next of kin to present the burial flag.
“Kneeling in front of someone and looking into their eyes, and presenting them a flag is kind of a worth-a-thousand-words kind of thing, a big gesture, a more powerful gesture,” Clark explained.
Clark and Dycha say what they offer families during funerals while the COVID-19 pandemic continues is a sense of normalcy in a far-from-normal time.
“It’s definitely less intimate,” Clark said. “You just have to make do with it and still know that the family understands.”