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Volunteer honor guard fills need at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery

| Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Public Affairs | April 27, 2016

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —

Some 30 years ago, a combination of factors forced the Department of Defense to reserve full military honors at burials only for those who died on active duty, Medal of Honor recipients and retirees.

Fortunately, in the San Antonio area, the veterans who did not meet those criteria were soon accorded the same final tributes.

A group of former service members banded together to pay respect to those veterans by volunteering to perform full military honors for them at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

 Chartered in 1990, the Fort Sam Houston Memorial Services Detachment Honor Guard started with just enough volunteers to perform at services one day a week starting in December 1991, but the organization grew quickly and now includes more than 100 members who provide three volleys of rifle fire and the playing of “Taps” each weekday at the historic cemetery. The number of their presentations has passed the 32,000 mark.

“The military branches normally provide full honors only for retirees and active-duty deaths, but manpower cutbacks sometimes mean they can’t provide those services,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Hoffman, Fort Sam Houston MSD finance officer and a past commander. “In those few cases, the MSD is there to fill the void. This is important to the families of the deceased, because it means their loved ones receive full military honors when they’re buried at Fort Sam – a fitting, final tribute to people who devoted a portion of their lives to the defense of the country.”

A member of the MSD for nearly 14 years, Hoffman said the organization steps up when the military branches – the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps – and the Coast Guard cannot provide full honors, which is for a majority of the burials at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

“The branches do send out two flag holders, but not rifles and live buglers, which the MSD can furnish most of the time,” he said.

 Hoffman, a career Air Force personnel officer who volunteers one afternoon each week at the Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Retiree Activities Office, said the Fort Sam Houston MSD was patterned after a similar organization that serves the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minnesota.

“The services were cutting out a number of the honor guard people who could do funerals,” he said. “They stopped sending full crews to the burials of veterans who did not retire from the military.”

Hoffman said the MSD started with one squad providing honors Dec. 17, 1991.

“By the end of 1992, enough volunteers had been recruited to cover five days,” he said.

The MSD comprises five squads – one for each day of the week. Members include veterans from all five services, including two women, one of whom has been in the MSD for more than 10 years.

“Well over half of our members are retirees,” Hoffman said. “We’re open to any former member of the armed forces with an honorable discharge. We’re also looking for physically capable people who can carry and fire an M-1 Garand rifle.”

The city of San Antonio and suburban communities are well-represented in the MSD, but members also come from outlying cities and towns, including Bulverde, Canyon Lake, LaCoste, La Vernia, New Braunfels, Pleasanton and Spring Branch.

The MSD has its own military-style organization with a commander, vice commander and other positions. The national cemetery provides space for a squad room, storage area and armory. The MSD supplies most of the uniform items, including black ascots, which are worn during the winter in lieu of ties. Military decorations and medals are furnished and bought by the individuals, not the MSD.

MSD members range in age from 35 to 83, but the average age is about 70, Hoffman said.

A tax-exempt organization that receives its funding from fundraisers and the donations of individuals and civic and military organization, the MSD performs all of its services free of charge to veterans’ families.

Gene Kuwik, the MSD’s Friday squad leader, said families appreciate the service provided by the honor guard.

“It gives true meaning to the military experience we bestow on them,” Kuwik said. “In many instances, family members and others attending the burial come to tears.

“The main thing is that we’re there,” he said. “If we weren’t there, it is possible they wouldn’t have those full honors.”

Kuwik has commanded the MSD’s color guard since its inception in 2003. The color guard promotes community awareness of the detachment by performing at parades and special events, including the meetings and conventions of various organizations, and visiting assisted-living centers and nursing homes to honor the veterans who live at those facilities.

Belonging to the MSD gives members a sense of purpose and provides them with camaraderie, said Kuwik, who is also approaching 14 years with the honor guard.

“Belonging to an organization like this at our age gives us something to look forward to and gives us a purpose in life,” he said.

Kuwik, a longtime first sergeant at Randolph Air Force Base, said one deceased MSD member’s daughter credited the organization for extending her father’s life.

Kuwik said the man’s daughter approached the MSD’s table at the 2003 Fort Sam Houston Retiree Appreciation Day and said her father would be interested in joining the organization.

“Although reluctant at first to recruit an 85-year-old, that feeling changed once I met her father,” he said. “He continued to serve this great nation as a member of the detachment until about a year before his death on Christmas Day, 2011, just short of his 94th birthday. 

“He served as a rifleman and color guard member, and he volunteered for every special event and ceremony held at the cemetery,” Kuwik said. “He was loved and highly respected.”

After the member’s death, Kuwik said he received a letter from his daughter.

“She said our detachment gave her father a reason to serve and a reason to live,” he said. “We will never forget this fine gentleman.”