Wheels of Honor

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News May 2014

Ready to respond at a moment’s notice, the Lone Star PVA Honor Guard dedicates its service to pay respect to fallen soldiers and veterans.

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At any given Texas veteran’s burial, you can expect one thing: the Lone Star Paralyzed Veterans of America Honor Guard giving one final salute.

These veterans-on-wheels provide services in the form of 21-gun salutes with World War II-era M1 Grand rifles at funerals, cemetery dedications and memorials and posting colors at sporting events.

Lone Star chapter member Joe Jackson first brought the idea of a wheelchair honor guard to the table in 1995. However, it wasn’t until 1999, after Jackson had passed, that the honor guard really got up and rolling.

“They were getting ready to open the Dallas[-Fort Worth] National Cemetery and another individual approached us about doing honors at the grand opening,” says Glen Bentley, executive director of the Lone Star chapter. “So at that point, we put it to motion to put the honor guard together.”

Filling a Need

When the honor guard first started, it only had eight members. But it didn’t take long for the group to grow. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a need for a non-active military honor guard formed.

“A lot of the funerals are held by active duty soldiers. But because of everything going on with the Iraq/Afghanistan war, the active [duty soldiers] cannot send out firing teams or funeral teams like they used to, so hopefully we’re picking up the slack and doing that,” Bentley says.

John Fay Jr., Steven Ray, the late Wandus Stone and Robert “Ted” Smith Jr. roll into a Veterans Day Service in Bonham, Texas.

The team now maintains a membership of 12–14 people serving at five to 10 events each month under Commander John Fay Jr. Fay joined the team when it formed in 1999.

“It’s one of those feel-good things you know?” Fay says. “It was something that needed to be done and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Not too fond of the flag work, each funeral Fay serves at reminds him why he signed up in the first place.

“The family appreciates us or somebody being there that’s making sure that this veteran is getting what he deserves,” Fay says. “Every time I do a funeral no matter where, what, weather-wise, or whatnot, it brings you back down to why you do this. It’s a great feeling to help somebody out, and it made me much more of a patriotic person.”

Fay can’t think of a single time the group turned down a funeral. They’ve done honors in rain, sleet, snow and 100-degree heat.

Even on days when they get a call in the morning for a funeral in the afternoon, they make sure someone is there to serve. The dedicated members are strictly volunteers and never ask for any form of payment for their services. They do, however, accept donations for the organization.

“It is rewarding when you do the rifle volley and we’re sitting off to the side a little bit away from there and before we get a chance to leave, the family members and people attending the funeral will walk over and shake each one of our hands or thank each one of us for the services we have provided for their loved one,” Bentley says.

A Place for Everyone

While Fay prefers honoring at funerals, some of Bentley’s most memorable experiences have been posting colors at sporting events, something the members with quadriplegia can participate in as well with a few adaptations.

At the formation of the honor guard, member Michael Bruscino and Bentley adapted the military Manual of Arms to work for the seated position. The subtle changes include holding the weapons across their laps rather than carrying them while rolling into a presentation, resting the rifles on the seat of their chairs when presenting arms rather than holding them straight out and using holders and clips on their chairs to keep the flags secured straight up when posting colors. The group also allows able-bodied volunteers to help push members while they hold the flag.

Being the only wheelchair-bound honor guard in the country has presented the opportunity to participate at unique events. Since the dedication of the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, the group has become a regular at military appreciation night of the Texas Legends NBA Development League team. The members had never fired their rifles in a building before, so the first year of the experience was exciting.

“We tried to explain to [the event coordinator], ‘You know how loud this is going to be having seven M1 rifles simultaneously firing inside a basketball court? Inside an enclosed building?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, the louder the better,’ ” Bentley says.

The two busiest times of the year land on Veterans Day and Memorial Day weekends. The honor guard has become a standard part of Dallas’ Veterans Day Parade, and the team can be found at about five to seven services on Memorial Day weekend.

Later this month, the team will start Memorial Day off at the Laurel Land Cemetery in Dallas with a morning service then head across town to Restland Cemetery for an afternoon service before finishing off the day in Fort Worth, Texas, for an evening service.

Room to Grow

With so much success and the high request rate the Lone Star Honor Guard receives, it’s a surprise more chapters haven’t started a group in their states. Although the Lone Star team treks to many events to do honors, they don’t have the means to travel too far out of the immediate area, leaving most of the country inaccessible to their services.

“We’ve had a couple different chapters talk about wanting to get one started and we’ve offered assistance,” Bentley says. “Nothing has really transpired and we’re kind of surprised no one else wants to step up and do this.”

Bentley thinks one reason chapters may be hesitant to form a similar group is because of start-up costs, which can run up to $7,000–$10,000 for the weapons, uniforms, ribbons and awards. However after that first year, the Lone Star chapter found that by setting some money aside in the budget each year, it isn’t a problem. Although they don’t ask for any money, they receive frequent donations from those who appreciate their services.

“It’s surprising, when we do this, we ask for nothing in return, a lot of honor guards request $100 or $200 or $300 or whatever. We don’t,” Bentley says. “We tell them if they want to donate to the organization, that’s great, but we are doing this as a service to a service member who deserves his [or her] last final honors so we ask for no money in return. And ironically we’ve actually, we get more donations that way.”

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