Carolyn Cole LA Times via AP

The Joint Military/First Responder Funeral

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I speak with law enforcement officers and firefighters around the country on all matters of drill and ceremonies. This crops up every so often and needs to be addressed.

Three percent of Americans serve in the military. Many of those who serve get out after their initial four years, maybe another tour, or they stay for 20. After that, some go into law enforcement or become firefighters.

The Requirement

Department of Defense Form 214 is what every veteran receives upon honorable discharge. It is presented to the funeral director to verify service. That verification gets the wheels in motion to request ceremonial support.

Since the year 2000 Defense Authorization Act, all veterans and retirees receive Military Funeral Honors in one form or another. Most often, two trained honor guard members show up for the funeral, fold and present the flag and sound Taps. That’s a Veteran Honors Funeral. A Retiree Honors Funeral used to have more involvement with pallbearers, but most retirees are given VHF. There are higher levels of support depending on rank and flying status that are filled based on available personnel.

As stated above, the government provides at least two servicemembers from the appropriate branch and a large-star interment flag. The government standard is to fold and present the flag and sound Taps as the standard, but there is sometimes a twist that the honor guard members have to deal with on the fly.

The Twists – not an exhaustive list

  • The family fights over the flag as it is presented.
  • The NOK refuses to take the flag as it is presented.
  • The family has an inquisitive member or two who start asking honor guard members questions during the funeral.
  • A distraught family member jumps on the casket as the pallbearers are carrying it to the grave site.
  • The veteran is a first responder and the military honor guard will fold the flag with the department’s chief presenting to the NOK (next of kin).
  • The family wants the state or county flag on the casket (perfectly acceptable) and now the military honor guard has nothing to do except sound Taps because the military does not fold these flags. Note – National Guard may be authorized to fold the state flag.

FYI, all of the above instances have happened to me or to honor guard members I know.

Let’s look a bit closer at the last bullet point.

The Veteran is a First Responder

This is quite common and military honor guard members need to handle this situation just like they handle the others – with respect and a humble attitude. We need to always remember that, while the funeral is because of the deceased, it is for the family, friends, and colleagues. It has *nothing* to do with the honor guard members; that’s why we don’t wear nametags. I was never SSgt/TSgt John Marshall while I was on a Base Honor Guard, I was just another Airman working with my team in whatever position. We are not ourselves, we are a team and not individuals. We represent our branch of of the military.

The Choice is up to the NOK

“The military is what he did, a police officer (fire fighter, etc.) was who he was.” Whatever the NOK wants, within reason, is what will happen for the funeral. The department/office honor guard works out every aspect of the funeral and inserts the military involvement, based on the wishes of the NOK.

A word to the military out there: you getting bent out of shape just because you think “this isn’t protocol” or “this interrupts what we do” has zero basis in fact. Drop all of your preconceived expectations except that you will do your job to the best of your ability regardless of the situation. That’s all you’re supposed to do. You have a lane that you are staying in (honor guard, for the moment) and now it’s been narrowed by someone (NOK) who has the authority to do that. Deal with it, do your job, and drive on.

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