Former Marines take up rifles once more to honor the dead

Harry Delaney, nearly seven decades beyond being a lean and mean Marine, still answers the call of duty when retired Master Sgt. John Newport sends out an email.

Delaney, 90, and his Marine brothers in arms show up at graveyards once or twice a week in uniform, or sometimes a couple of times a day, with 11-pound World War II-era M-1 Garand rifles, a trumpet, flag and a weighty amount of senior grit.

The troop members pull their complaining bodies to attention and stand tall for 40 minutes whether the temperature is 32 or 92 degrees to give veterans being buried everything they earned.

The playing of Taps. A folded flag and thanks to survivors. And three volleys fired from the M-1s as a final salute and goodbye.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

It wasn’t always so at the 775-acre Georgia National Cemetery in Cherokee County. Honorably discharged veterans are promised certain final benefits, among them, burial in a veteran’s cemetery, a flag-draped coffin, a certificate of thanks from the president, and a military presence which is usually two still-serving military service members to fold and present the flag. Taps is played, or more often now, a recording of the trumpeted song is.

But the three-volley salute is subject to the availability of military personnel, which wasn’t happening often for enlisted men and women being put to rest.

Newport, the 79-year-old founder of the Marine Corps League detachment in Cherokee County didn’t become a leatherneck master sergeant by doing things halfway. He worked on building up the number of former Marines in the detachment — a support and service organization — with an eye on having enough members to create a rotating squad of veterans to make sure as many veterans as possible get their last full measure of honors.

By spring of 2017, he had 15 volunteers out of his 100-plus members. The 14 men and one woman don’t need a lot of “oorahs” to show up rain or shine at the national cemetery or at private graveyards from Albany to Dalton.

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For team members, Memorial Day — established by Congress to honor the memories of fallen soldiers — comes any day or week.

“We are honoring our sisters and brothers who have fallen. We bury the young and old … in backyards, on farms, cemeteries, you name it,” Newport said.

Team member Russ “Red” Johnson, 71, said, “We started out doing it primarily for Marines and soon found ourselves being asked to do them for literally every branch of the service.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Newport said: “It’s kind of how we want to be honored for our service when we die. That’s what drives us. It’s our duty.”

In four years, they have fired more than 6,000 rounds and are closing in on 450 services. They buy their own equipment and Marine Corps League uniforms — usually two or three of them to match seasons and to make sure they look clean and proper. They also have purchased dress blue uniforms for two Marines who wanted to be buried in them but no longer had one.

Between them, team members carry three Purple Hearts for combat wounds, a Silver Star Medal — the nation’s third highest honor for gallantry in combat — a presentation from the Republic of Vietnam and enough service ribbons to make any squad proud.

More recently, they’ve also born cases of diabetes, cancer, neuropathy, enough silver-white hair to stand in for a troop of Santa Clauses, and a heart transplant for the team bugler.

They comradery and a sense of duty keep members inspired to show up.

When an aching leg or wife tells the members that maybe they should skip a funeral, they think of each other.

“If Harry can do it and he is 90 years old, then, by God, I can do it,” 73-year-old Phil Moser said.

“We tell Harry that we all want to be him when we grow up,” Johnson said.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

To prepare the team, Newport or member Robert Ekholm try to find the soldier’s obituary to read to them before the service. And if the two-person military detail can’t make it, which happens, the team is trained to Department of Defense standards and is certified to fulfill every promise made, from Taps, flag-folding and presentation, to thanks and the rifle salute.

One of the team also collects three of the spent shell casings and places those in a family member’s hand, often the widow — “courage, honor, integrity,” Moser said he tells them while looking them in the eye. “I put them in her hand and then close her hand around them.”

“We try to act like every funeral is the only one we’ve ever done, because for these families it is probably the only time they’ll be at the Georgia National Cemetery and see a proper military burial,” he said.

The team does it for those they never met, but they also do it for those they did.

“I thought I was missing something in my life, my duty to my country honestly, but also to the memory of friends I lost in Korea,” Delaney said.

His battalion was sent over just as he was being shipped out to North Carolina for more training. His comrades ended up on the front lines just before China sent soldiers flooding across the border to fight.

“When they shipped out that night, it was the last I saw of them. I wanted to remember them. The rifle team is the way of honoring the memory of a person who has fallen … but also honoring the memory of some of the other guys.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC


Monday, May 31, Memorial Day

The last Monday in May is Memorial Day, one of two U.S. holidays dedicated to veterans.

It commemorates military members who died while in service, particularly those who died in wars. It began after the Civil War informally in various communities, including events in Macon and Columbus, Georgia. Congress established it as a national holiday in 1971.

Veterans Day is the second holiday, observed each Nov. 11. It was first proclaimed by presidential decree in 1919 to commemorate the end of World War I as Armistice Day. It was later changed to honor all American veterans.

Source: U.S. Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs