An overwhelmed honor guard needs service connected people to fill vital roles

On any given day you see them in their distinctive box-shaped van leaving out from their quarters ceded to them by the American Legion. Yet on another day, you can see them returning. You know they just came back from fulfilling the promise made to a fallen service member. A promise they did not give, but one they are keeping just the same.

If you were not aware of such matters, you would not know that they are surprisingly low in numbers for the work they may have done or are going to do. Again, if you did not know the duty of these selfless heroes working hard to make sure that other heroes are not forgotten, then you would not notice the day they are no longer around.

In the area, they are known as the Carter County/Elizabethton Honor Guard and they work tirelessly every day to fulfill the promise made to the thousands of American service men and women on the day that their service started that in exchange for risking their lives in the defense of this nation that they would be provided certain benefits.

The crucial benefit that the guard seeks to provide is a military honors funeral. However, it is a benefit that some inactive members who served our country may never receive.

The reason for this, oddly enough is not a funding issue, at least not at first glance, but a staffing one. Proper military rights funerals require at the very least nine to ten current or previous service members and a chaplain. Seven to fire volleys, another to call commands, and yet one other member who must be somewhat skilled enough to play taps.

The Elizabethton Star decided to take a closer look into the possibility of losing our guard. We wanted to understand why it is so difficult to fulfill the promise made many years ago to those sometimes scared but courageous men and women that it sent off to fight wars started by politicians for causes some of them did not understand.

Kelly Greene, who served as a Marine, now heads up the guard. His dedication to the position he holds is very clear in the almost strident need to make sure the public knows the precarious position he and the rest of the current members of the honor team is in.

“Why would we would not want to give back to a veteran that stood for us and willing to give their life for that cause in a military burial,” said Greene. “America is the only country that ever has given as many lives — shed as much blood — as any country on the face of Earth.

“Each veteran that puts a uniform on understands that their lives could be sacrificed for the cause of freedom for this nation. Why would we not want to give them a burial that they deserve?

“Veterans believe that when their time comes that if they wish to have a military burial that the government would send the people to perform the service for them. Seven people to fire the rifle volley, two people to fold and present the flag, a chaplain and one to play taps, and if available other personnel that would carry the flag…

“The government promised us that they would give us [a military burial] if we requested it.”

Greene explained how the veteran that they had served that day had requested a military burial. The veteran was proud of his service. However, if it were not for the honor guard, it was very possible that he would not have received it because there were no active duty people sent by the government.

“The government does not have enough people to give us. We are supposed to aid them, but actually we take their place,” said Greene.

The guard does not have its own headquarters nor official source of funding. This is not the biggest issue according to Greene because they are able to operate off of donations and an occasional grant from the county and city.

“What we need are more people. People give us donations along the way. Recently the city and the county have stepped up and given us donations which were desperately needed to keep our van running, but we need people, we got to have people…to fulfill all of the services that we are asked to do,” said Greene.

Greene said that since January he and the guard have performed over 120 funerals not including the ones that had to be turned down because of the lack of service connected personnel to perform them.

The government when it can even send out an honor detachment will only send three service members, said Green. Two to fold and present the flag and another to play taps. The other most venerable acts that should be completed are not, such as the rifle fire volley.

For Greene this is the most sacred.

“The reason the rifle volley is important, you see, that was a signal back in the war…our country back when we fought in the civil war, we had enough dignity and morals about ourselves to say, on each side, this evening we are going to gather and bury our dead. When you hear these three rifle shots that means that our dead have been buried…carry on with the war,” explained Greene. “Symbolically, the veterans when they hear the shots that means the dead are buried.

“The government does not provide that. If you are an active duty member and have been killed in action, then sure they will do that. Every veteran, in my opinion, deserves the same thing that an active duty gets.”

Greene does not see increasing funding and establishing a bureaucratic honor guard as the answer. He says there are enough veterans in Elizabethton and Carter County that could help fill out their ranks, but so far only a few have answered the call.

Currently, the guard has only five members: Greene; Robert Vance, another inactive Marine; Roger Miller, who served a lifetime in the Navy reserves, Reecy Kinnard, from the Army, and Curt Preston from the Air Force.

“We have health issues, but we still have got to go,” said a noticeably weary Greene.

Another part of what makes the honor guard so crucial is what it does for the family members of the fallen. When a flag that has been folded by a fellow service member is presented to a wife or a husband, it is the country’s show of gratitude and recognition that the veteran’s loved one has just lost a soul mate they have been with more than 50 years in some cases.

So the call is put out once again. The Carter County and Elizabethton honor guard is looking for fellow veterans to help them continue to deliver the promise.

Those who want to answer the call can do so by reaching out to Kelly Greene at 423-895-3819.

Greene said he is grateful for all these that have come and gone, for local government and all those that have helped in some way to keep the guard going.

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