The Peninsula Veterans’ Honor Guard and Color Guard team has been through many alterations since its almost accidental creation in 1999. At that time, VFW Post 4990 was a busy organization with a sizable active membership. Its vice commander, Gary Helmick, retired from the U.S. Air Force received an out-of-the-blue request from the organizers of Key Peninsula’s annual Old Timers’ Day celebration. They wanted to know if the VFW could arrange an honor guard to raise the flag during opening ceremonies.
Helmick thought it was a good idea, so he went to look for some surplus helmets. He sanded and dusted them, then painted them a shiny white.
Then he convinced five of the group’s members they wanted to be part of what was the birth of an honor guard. They created a uniform of white VFW shirts, grey pants and well-polished boots. Some wives knitted them matching gray scarves to complete the smart uniforms.
That year, the five were the lead contingent in the Old Timers’ parade. They’d had their baptism as a bona fide color guard.
Thereafter, they participated in parades and functions at local schools on behalf of the community. In 2002, one of their members, an Air Force veteran, was buried at Mount Tahoma National Cemetery with full military honors.
As Helmick chatted with members of the officiating honor guard, he learned they were seeking volunteers.
With some trepidation, Helmick’s friends decided to have a go at it.
Although the experience was new to them, they got organized, spent hours training on the required maneuvers, practiced marching and honed skills with rifle drills at one of their members’ homes. They smoothed their speeches and became regulars in the Mount Tahoma Honor Guard. They continue to serve at the national cemetery monthly in the honored role.
The rendering of military funeral honors is one way this nation shows its deep gratitude to those who, in times of war and peace, have faithfully defended the country. Prior to 2000, and even in recent years, honorably serving men and women have died without receiving the nation’s formal demonstration of gratitude for their service and sacrifice.
Gig Harbor VFW Post 1854’s Peninsula Veterans’ Honor Guard and Color Guard team stresses those veterans deserve the recognition, and the Veterans Memorial Tribute program is dedicated to leaving none of them behind.
In 2004, the honor guard received the Veteran Golden Guardian Angels Award from Gov. Gary Locke. A year later, it was awarded certification by the Department of Defense by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
It received the 2008 Armed Forces Festival Best Military/Veterans Unit Award of the Year in the Bremerton Armed Forces Day parade. And, In 2009, it received a second Veteran Golden Guardian Angels Award from then Gov. Chris Gregoire.
For the past several months, the honor guard has invited the public to attend its memorial tribute program for veterans interred in Pierce County without full military honors. The ceremonies are conducted jointly with the Washington Army National Guard headquartered at Camp Murray. There is prayer and a reading of each veteran’s name, accompanied by the tolling of the ceremonial bell, a rifle salute and “Taps.”
Often, families in bereavement are unaware a deceased loved one, even though they were a veteran, is entitled to those honors.
“Therefore,” Helmick said, “if you have a family member who was interred without military honors, please come and see this beautiful ceremony. While your loved one’s name may not be on a specific list, the service is intended for all veterans.
“A veteran is defined by federal law, moral code and military service as any person who honorably served for any length of time, in any military service branch and, as such, is entitled to full military honors,” he said.
The Peninsula Veterans’ Honor Guard is tasked with providing honors to private military funeral requests, Veterans Day ceremonies at schools, participation in parades and other functions that require a full color guard to present the national colors.
It is one of 17 Washington teams certified by the Department of Defense to perform full military honors for deceased veterans and active-duty personnel within specific guidelines set down by the department.
PVHG is comprised of veterans from all branches of service, all ranks and service organizations.
Bob Cate, the honor guard’s drill master who retired after 39 years with the U.S. Marine Corps, is a combat veteran of Vietnam, Desert Storm and other conflicts.
“I believe every veteran in good standing deserves to be buried with full military honors,” he said. “I volunteer my expertise to train veterans who feel as I do, and volunteer valuable free time to assist this program. It is very satisfying to me to see veterans taking care of veterans and their families.”
The next ceremony will be held at noon on Monday at Gig Harbor’s Haven of Rest Cemetery. For more information, call Karl Bonn at 253-381-7578 or Sgt. Amedee J. Santamour III at 253-512-8199.
“We are looking for volunteers willing to put in eight hours on the fourth Thursday of every month,” said Bonn, the group’s chaplain.Hugh McMillan is a longtime freelance contributor to The Peninsula Gateway. He can be reached at 253-884-3319 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.