“The rendering of Military Funeral Honors is a way to show the nation’s deep gratitude to those who, in times of war and peace, have faithfully defended our country,” said Master Sgt. Mary Stoops, a noncommissioned officer with the Michigan National Guard, 63rd Brigade Regional Casualty Operation. “The ceremony should convey respect and reverence to the deceased military member and his or her family. That is why we rehearse until our movements, spacing, and footsteps are prefect,” she added while other members of her team arrived at the Grand Valley armory, April 15, 2015, donning pristine dress uniforms. On this day however, the team would not be serving at a funeral. Instead, team members gathered to perform the rituals carried out during a formal military funeral in front of a film crew from the Grand Rapids-based, Compass College of Cinematic Arts.
The advanced-level, CCCA film students are in the process of creating a documentary honoring World War II veterans that will be shared at CCCA as one of several requirements toward degree completion and shared with the Grand Rapids community during patriotic events. The students also plan to submit the film to state and national broadcasting competitions to achieve further recognition and distribution. The lead writer of the film, Brandon Tarleton, contacted the Michigan National Guard public affairs office to receive project review and filming approval from State Public Affairs Officer, Lt. Col. William Humes.
“At first they must’ve thought I was crazy wanting to bring a film crew into the armory,” said Tarleton who completed two deployments with Michigan Guard units before leaving the military and enrolling at CCCA. “But as I explained what the film was about and shared stories of the Veterans I’d met while working on the project, the public affairs folks better understood how special, respectful and reverent the final product would be. I am truly grateful that, even in today’s high-security environment, I was given permission to bring a camera crew into the personal lives of Michigan National Guard Funeral Honors team members,” Tarleton added.
Stoops, the Grand Rapids Funeral Honors NCO had to do some calendar scrubbing to find a day when the group could come together for filming. She said the two or three-person details conduct funeral honors almost daily in locations all over Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. “When the ground thaws we are unbelievably busy,” Stoops said. “But funerals take place in the winter too,” she added, “I’ve seen backhoes with broken buckets because the ground was frozen solid, but when the weather is warmer then scheduling can be an issue. We do our very best to accommodate everyone, but sometimes the number of funeral honors staff is less than the number of requests coming in and obviously that presents a problem. We can usually come up with a solution, but we could certainly use additional team members.”
Stoops said this was the first time that any of the team had been filmed for a formal production. The CCCA crew set up multiple camera booms and lights that covered a variety of angles as the teams marched, folded the flag, and fired three round volleys but even with all of the distractions they were extremely precise and professional.
Michigan National Guard Funeral Honors teams serve families from all branches of service though the majority are Army affiliated. Requests for service come from funeral directors, family members, branch service coordinators, and fellow service members to the deceased. Occasionally, even individual team members will get a phone call or visit from a friend-of-a-friend who knew they were Honor Guard trained, asking for service at a specific funeral. For coordination and record however, all services require a completed DD 2536, Request for Armed Forces Participation form and a copy of the Veteran’s DD 214 discharge form documenting honorable separation from service. Specific eligibility criteria are listed on the Department of Defense website.
The rendering of Military Funeral Honors for an eligible Veteran is free of charge. An honor guard detail is comprised of a minimum of two Armed Forces members with one member of the detail representing the parent service branch of the deceased. The honor detail will typically perform a ceremony that includes the folding and presenting of the American flag to the next of kin and the playing of Taps if a bugler is available. The Veteran’s parent service representative presents the flag to the next of kin unless for a specific reason they are unable to perform the service.
Master Sgt. Christopher Grupp is the Michigan National Guard Casualty Operations and Funeral Honors Noncommissioned Officer in Charge. He and other MING leadership team members, oversee all funeral honors operations in Michigan. The team works with military service coordinators from other branches and other states to ensure that every qualified funeral honors request for a Michigan Veteran is completed with great care, respect and dignity.
“I think the emotional component of serving with a Funeral Honors detail can be difficult for some Soldiers,” Grupp said. “However, the rewards for honoring our fallen brothers and sisters makes the hard times easier. Those who perform funeral honors know that their presence at a funeral is 100 percent about honoring the Veteran. The team arrives early, completes a pre-ceremony reconnaissance, performs the rites, and then unobtrusively departs. They don’t even wear name tapes,” Grupp added. “It is truly all about honoring the Veteran.”
Applications to join the MING Honor Guard must be sent to the Lansing Casualty Operations Office. Applicants must pass an Army physical fitness test and meet height/weight requirements. They must be E5 (sergeant) level or below and all applicants must be in good standing with their unit. Because duties include driving to a number of locations and carrying and discharging a firearm, applicants must pass a background investigation prior to appointment. Once accepted, new members are trained internally by certified senior staff and must complete a distance learning module. When those steps are complete and the new member has completed 10 missions, he or she is eligible for the MIARNG Honor Guard Ribbon.
Michigan currently has about 35 active Honor Guard members based in seven regional offices (Lansing, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Fort Custer near Battle Creek, Saginaw, Grayling and Marquette). They perform more than 3,000 funeral honors each year and they serve during other, service-related events based on availability. For more information about Military Funeral Honors contact the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Casualty Operations Office, 517-481-8401. Application packets for interested personnel can be obtained from any regional office or team leader.