They are a regular part of local Veterans Day and Memorial Day programs, where they have caused many to shudder, physically and emotionally, at the sight and sound of rifles fired in a military salute offered to veterans living and dead.
And the Ohio Valley Veterans Memorial Squad again will be participating in Memorial Day programs at noon today in Follansbee and at 2 p.m. in Beech Bottom. But the squad's sense of obligation to their fallen comrades extends beyond those two holidays. The volunteer group has offered a military tribute at the funerals of hundreds of area military veterans from all five military branches.
On those solemn occasions, the squad conducts a ritual that includes the presentation of a U.S. flag, folded military-style into a triangle, to the next of kin (when the veteran is honorably discharged, and a salute by each member to the deceased.
PAYING TRIBUTE – The Ohio Valley Veterans Memorial Squad has helped to honor hundreds of area veterans through military honors presented at their funerals and Memorial Day and Veterans Day programs in local communities. They also participated in the Brooke County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation’s annual dinner held April 28 with Army National Guard Sgt. Steven Bliss and Army National Guard Specialist Scott Clegg, who also appear at many funerals. On hand for the event were, front, from left, squad member Ron Misch; Doug Lilly, the squad’s commander; squad members Hank Durante, Hartzel Brady and Tom Longwell: and back, Clegg; squad members Denny Williams, George Dragonir, Steve Jasko and Ed Brothers; and Bliss. -- Warren Scott
When there are a sufficient number of members available, it includes the firing of rifles and playing of taps at the grave site.
Doug Lilly, the squad's commander since 2006, said the group attended 101 funerals in 2010, its busiest year; 96 last year and 35 to date this year.
"We do more funerals in Ohio than here (in West Virginia) because of the greater population," said Lilly, a Beech Bottom resident and Army veteran.
Over the years the group has included veterans from Brooke, Hancock and Jefferson counties. Its 17 current members are largely in Brooke County, though there is one Jefferson County resident - Army veteran Rex Sagan.
But the group welcomes veterans from throughout the area and from all eras. Local veterans interested in participating should call (304) 527-9823.
George Dragnonir of Follansbee, a former Navy Reservist and past acting commander of the squad, said the need for more members is strong because the group must be prepared, sometimes on short notice, to present military honors at a growing number of funerals.
Steve Jasko of Wellsburg, a Vietnam veteran with the squad, agreed, noting the squad is losing many of the active members who were World War II veterans.
"The biggest problem is the rate at which we're losing our World War II veterans," he said.
Lilly said the squad has gained a few new members, including 27-year-old Joshua Harry of Follansbee, a Marine veteran, but younger members' work schedules aren't as flexible as retirees'.
Lilly said the group benefits from the cooperation of local funeral directors who try to contact the squad a few days in advance and also have made donations to offset their expenses.
The federal government supplies ammunition used by the squad, known as "ceremonial blanks," but the squad assumes the cost for fuel, uniforms and maintenance and repair of its rifles.
Lilly, who repairs many of the rifles himself, said it will cost $100 in parts for two rifles he's currently working on.
"We depend on donations," he said.
The volunteer group also places U.S. flags on the graves of veterans at four Follansbee-area cemeteries on Memorial Day and Veterans Day and three members conduct a brief flag-raising ceremony at the start of Brooke High School football games.
Members have turned out for graveside funeral services in all kinds of weather, including rain and snow, but it's something they're happy to do.
"We could stand in a windstorm and nobody complains," said Lilly.
Jasko said, "Because it's so rewarding for me to give back, I feel guilty because I start to think I get more out of it than the family."
"Some member of the family always comes to you to thank you for being there," said Dragonir.
Lilly agreed, saying, "We get a lot of nice letters from the families and that makes it worthwhile."
But most of all, he said, the veterans themselves deserve the honor because of the sacrifices they have made for their country, at wartime and in peace.
"It's an honor for us. We consider those guys heroes - all those veterans," he said.