By Eric McClure
It’s Friday morning and the clothing lying on Norman Conant’s bed consists of a white, collared long-sleeve shirt, black dress pants and shoes, a black tie and white gloves. The shirt’s collar is decorated with U.S. collar pins.The tie is adorned with an American flag pin. A yellow citation cord loops around the shirt’s sleeve, a symbol of the funeral brigade. This is the uniform of the Fort Custer National Cemetery Honor Guard.
Conant, 74, is one of 11 volunteers in the Friday honor guard squad. Like their Monday through Thursday counterparts, the squad contributes to the military funeral honors for the men and women who served in the armed forces. Not all the volunteers are veterans.
After he’s dressed and has had breakfast, Conant heads out for his shift at the cemetery, one of only four national cemeteries in Michigan. Once Conant arrives, he meets the others in the Friday squad at the Honor Guard Building.
Each honor guard member selects a rifle and a clip of blank ammunition. After they have prepared their rifles, they wait for the first service, passing the time talking with each other, playing cards, and enjoying a weekly dessert.
“We have one guy whose wife, every Friday, makes us a coffee cake,” Conant said.
Prior to the first service, the honor guard makes its way up the pathway to the area where military funerals are held. They chat together until the toll of the bell near the front of the cemetery is heard. This lets the guard know that the procession is on its way, Conant said.
The honor guard takes its place in front of the circle driveway: seven riflemen, one bugler, one squad commander, and two members who will follow the family into the shelter for the service. Once the hearse arrives, the honor guard assists with unloading the casket. They then give a military salute as the family follows the flag-draped casket up the walkway toward the shelter.
The service begins with an honor guard member reading from a general script that honors the bravery and commitment of all who have served.
The squad commander then calls the honor guard back to attention. After hearing the command, “Ready, aim, fire!”, the honor guard fires off three rounds in unison, or a three-volley salute, Conant said.
The haunting echo of the bugler playing taps then rings out, vibrating off the nearby woods. When there isn’t a bugler on-site, a recording plays from a speaker in the woods. It gives him chills, Conant said.
During the last part of the service, the two honor guard members who accompanied the family into the shelter follow the proper process for folding the American flag, which includes 12 separate folds, Conant said.
The flag is then presented to the deceased’s family, along with a scroll explaining the history and symbolism behind the flag and three wrapped cartridges representing the three-volley salute, Conant said.
The two honor guard members give a final salute to the family and then return to the other honor guard members outside of the shelter. Seeing the family as they leave the service, headed to the gravesite, can be the hardest part, Conant said.