Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
New honor guard possible with Rotary Club’s support
ST. ALBANS — No matter what happened in the beginning or the middle, every Franklin County veteran can now be properly honored at the end of their life.
Three Vietnam War veterans – retired Air Force SMSgt. Homer Wetherby, 65; retired Navy Sr. Chief and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) service officer Jim Lavoie, 75; and retired Marine Corps member, Army Sgt. and Vietnam Veterans of America chaplain Fred McMahon, Sr., 62 – are making sure of that.
Thanks to recent generous donations from the Rotary Club of St. Albans and several others, the three men are leading the effort to create an honor guard detail, available for any military member’s funeral or wake and services held on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.
“It’s a final salute – that’s the way I look at it,” said Lavoie on Tuesday. He added that due to the complicated place the Vietnam War holds in American history, he and his fellow service men weren’t exactly celebrated or commemorated when they returned from combat.
“We weren’t remembered too much when we came home,” said Lavoie.
Even now, said Wetherby, it’s tough for Vietnam War veterans to think about that time in their lives.
“They don’t want to have the memory,” he said.
When it comes to a veteran dying, however, Wetherby, Lavoie, McMahon and seven other Vietnam veterans will be there – if a family desires – to provide an honor guard at his or her funeral. It’s their way of showing respect, said Wetherby.
“We never forget the other veterans, of all wars and all branches,” he said.
Wetherby, Lavoie and McMahon attended the Rotary Club’s monthly meeting on Tuesday to present the plans for their honor guard.
Rotary Club president Rene Meilleur opened the presentation while retired Navy rear admiral Warren Hamm, a veterans’ advocate and Rotary member who also worked to make the program a reality, stood by.
“As most of you know,” Meilleur told Rotary members, “last week we made announcement that the club was donating a fairly hefty amount of money for a new honor guard.”
Meilleur added, “Rotary has made a fantastic commitment to what I think is a fantastic program.”
He handed an envelope with a check to Wetherby.
“It’s an honor for us to do this,” said Wetherby. He explained that while the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000 technically entitles every veteran military honors with two service members at his or her funeral, that may not always happen.
“In the past, we’ve been told that several military members have gone without a military funeral,” said Wetherby. “We felt that’s just not right. We need to honor our dead.”
He said that McMahon brought the idea of an honor guard to the Vietnam veterans at the VFW, and a dozen people were interested in helping out. Tuesday, Wetherby said they had 10 people they could rely on to be in the guard, and that the group was already receiving calls and requests.
“We’re not up and running just yet but hopefully soon we can do that,” said Wetherby.
With the Rotary’s check in hand, Wetherby said the honor guard was one step closer to being operational. He showed off the uniforms the honor guard members would be purchasing in several days – navy trousers, a white shirt, a red ascot, a red, white and blue braid and a military beret.
“Fortunately, with your donation, we can do that,” said Wetherby. “Now we can go ahead and outfit 10 people.”
With their uniforms, borrowed M-1 rifles from the Vermont Army National Guard, and flags to present to families, Wetherby said beginning August 15, the honor guard will be available to any and all services for veterans in Franklin County.
“We’ll make ourselves available to whomever,” said Wetherby.
Anyone who would like the honor guard detail at a veteran’s funeral or wake can request that service through local funeral homes. Wetherby said the group planned to compliment the American Legion honor guard and other service details, and that it would initially be limited to Franklin County, though he expected the idea could expand to Grand Isle County and maybe Chittenden County in the future.
Since the guard currently consists of Vietnam veterans all in their sixties, Wetherby said they would be looking for new, younger recruits down the line, too.
“It’s getting very difficult for any military service organization to get the recent returnees to get involved,” he said.
Now and in the future, honor guard is continuing to accept donations, which Wetherby said will be needed to cover ongoing expenses. Checks can be made out to Franklin County Vermont Honor Detail, and they can be sent to 433 Sheldon Rd., St. Albans, VT 05478.
Rotary Club members thanked the three men on Tuesday for what they planned to do. On behalf of the guard, Lavoie thanked the Club in return.
“Thanks for the marriage [in funds] – the families are really going to appreciate it,” said Lavoie.
Wetherby pointed out that the honor guard members themselves appreciated the support, too.
“We’re really excited about getting this off the ground and being able to provide this service,” he said.
McMahon, who will be the commander of the honor guard, added, “It means a lot to us, for sure.”