PUNXSUTAWNEY — A folded flag. A somber salute. A symphony of staggered rifle shots.
Yet, perhaps, the most recognizably heartbreaking offering lies in the thick, somber stillness as that slow, steady score sobers the silence. That one melancholy military cry serves to satisfy an absence of sound when fitting words cease to exist. A simple string of notes influences an unforgettable harmony, intended for “goodnight,” but more often remembered for “goodbye.”
That particular tune is known as “Taps.”
Steeped in tradition, military funeral honors — involving the folding and presenting of the United States flag, along with the playing of “Taps” and firing of three volleys — honor a fallen soldier.
The Jefferson County Veterans’ Honor Guard, made up of 25 local veterans and their spouses, devotes its time to the dignified duty of providing these official offerings.
The guard, member Pat Rogeux said, formed out of the decision that “every veteran deserves a military funeral.”
Regardless of belonging to a veterans’ organization, the guard will provide its services of homage, free of charge, to all veterans upon family request.
“We get the call, we go,” guard President John Uplinger said.
Since forming in February 2005, the guard has served at 130 military funerals.
“It’s kind of our way of saying thank you,” Rougeux said.
Though the assemblage was organized to serve Jefferson County in particular, the guard has additionally travelled to other areas — including Armstrong County, Indiana County, Kittanning and Pittsburgh — to serve at the funerals of veterans.
The guard received donations after initially forming, but in the beginning, used its own “pocket money” to provide uniforms and rifles, Uplinger said.
“We were borrowing weapons from the American Legion,” he said. “When you fire them, you don’t know if they’re going to stay together or fall apart. So we went out and bought our own.”
The group, Rouguex said, through tear-filled eyes, purchased its bugle — for the playing of “Taps” — with the memorial money of her late husband, veteran Joseph A. Rouguex.
Uplinger said the only financial aid the guard now receives, other than donations, is a small stipend from the Department of Defense for serving at Army funerals. The department will pay $50 apiece for up to six men serving.
“It keeps us going,” he said.
Donations and the money earned from Army funerals, Uplinger said, are divvied up and used to purchase equipment and uniforms.
“Sometimes you get donations, sometimes you don’t,” he said. “Regardless, we don’t charge. We don’t squabble. We don’t do anything about it. We just do our jobs.”
Not only does a formal military funeral serve to honor a fallen soldier, but additionally as a gesture of condolence to grieving families.
“It really touches their hearts,” guard member Marge Frantz said. “It helps them get through what they’re going through.”
Generally, eight to 12 guard members attend a veteran’s funeral, Uplinger said. Though, “No two funerals are the same,” he added.
In addition to the traditional military proceedings, the guard presents branch of service flags to families of the deceased, a custom it calls its own.
Beyond serving at the funerals of fallen veterans, the guard is involved with Veterans’ Day programs, the VFW program, Memorial Day proceedings, parades and various veterans’ activities.
Evident in their expression of dedication, an incalculable amount of gratitude, respect and camaraderie drives the guard to serve at the funerals of their fellow veterans.
“Let’s put it this way,” an emotional Uplinger slowly said. “If it wouldn’t be for those veterans going before us, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Lingering long after the last goodbyes, that one haunting military call, “Taps,” serves as an acknowledgment of allegiance. Correspondingly, as the guard ushers in the red, white and blue draped casket, carefully pieces the burial flag into 13 folds, presents the colors to sorrow-stricken families, offers a final salute and fires 21 unanswered rifle shots, the Jefferson County Veterans’ Honor Guard serves to offer its fellow veterans a nod of humble appreciation and a final farewell.