SHIAWASSEE COUNTY VETERANS HONOR GUARD members (from left) Gary Coe and Les Schneider wish to share their passion in supporting veterans and their families. People interested in joining the honor guard can contact Les Schneider at (989) 429-4310 for more information.
Schneider is shown in the jacket provided to the organization through Jennifer Clarke and the Shane Cantu family. All members of the honor guard have one of these warm jackets and are very grateful to the Cantu family for supplying them – particularly since this year with the pandemic, many funeral services have been held outside.
(Independent Photo/Karen Mead-Elford)
The Shiawassee County Veterans Honor Guard has made honoring veterans and assisting their families at funerals its first priority of service.
The local honor guard began in the mid-1990s after recognizing many Veteran Service Organizations (VSO) were facing dwindling memberships. Some traditional VSO groups were even forced to close during this period. According to information provided by members of the honor guard, there are currently 18 million veterans – 7 percent of the population – living in the United States. By 2037, it is projected that number will be around 13.6 million. So even as of 2020, numbers of veterans are decreasing – but this is where the honor guard steps up. As it has been active in Shiawassee County since the 1990s, the honor guard remains every bit as active today – perhaps more so.
In previous decades, most VSOs were able to offer individual honor guards representing a particular group. With decreased VSO membership, the Shiawassee County Veterans Honor Guard, with seventeen active members, is able to provide services on behalf of the other organizations when needed. Aside from funeral services, the decrease in VSO membership has seen a decline in ceremonial participation in parades and other veteran related activities. The Shiawassee County Veterans Honor Guard is accumulatively able to assist in these ceremonies – the obvious goal being to maintain veteran recognition.
In a recent meeting with Les Schneider, acting commander, and Gary Coe, participating member and secretary, the men outlined what the Shiawassee County Veterans Honor Guard entails. As part of its history, the honor guard grew from a small group in the 1990s to what it is today. Since its start over two decades ago, the honor guard has organized and performed a total of 4,125 military funerals. Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly recruited the honor guard thirteen years ago. The honor guard now spends one full day every month in Holly performing up to 10 veteran funeral ceremonies. The group often receives calls from other Michigan counties and responds to those needs, as well. All expenses are handled by participating honor guard members, though families of veterans often offer donations for funeral and/or ceremonial services.
Schneider and Coe had much to share about the honor guard. Both men pointed out that honor guard members are also involved in a large number of community support projects, too. Some examples include building ramps at disabled veterans residences, providing medical transportation, providing transportation for state level VSO officers, collecting and distributing medical equipment for veterans, participating in a local Civil War reenactors group, volunteering at Fiddler’s Green, serving on the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners, supporting Hospice and many more. All members also have to train for guard positions including “calling commands, folding and presenting the flag and presenting the brass.”
Schneider and Coe both shared that folding the flag takes considerable practice, particularly during cold weather. A lot of effort goes into correctly folding the flag to present to the family during a funeral service.
“We are at 160 to 165 funerals per year,” Schneider said. “So about one every other day. We’re there for the family. They are very grateful we are there. They don’t expect us to do what we do for them.”
This year, given the pandemic, the group has attended a large number of outdoor funerals. Schneider and Coe both noted how pleased they are with the warm, unified jackets provided to the group from Jennifer Clarke and the Shane Cantu family. A patch representing Shane Cantu of Corunna, who was killed in service in Afghanistan eight years ago, is on the right shoulder of the jackets.
So what happens after ceremonies? Well tradition is for the Shiawassee County Veterans Honor Guard to gather at BJ’s Restaurant to “relax and enjoy their great food,” shared Coe.
“They always take real good care of us and go out of their way to be nice to us,” said Schneider. “We love to fill up on coffee and pie. Sometimes they ask us what we want days in advance and make a special pie or cake just for us.”
BJ’s restaurant is located on E. M-21. The Shiawassee County Veterans Honor Guard is asking the public to support BJ’s during these tough times since the restaurant has contributed so much in supporting veterans.
For those interested in joining the honor guard or offering a donation, contact Les Schneider at (989) 429-4310. Members, male or female, are welcome to contribute as many or as few hours as is convenient.
Current members include Hank Kuchar, Larry Wilt, David Hilliker, Jesse Anguiano, Gary Granger, Bill Lulham, Paul Davis, Gary “Doc” Duehring, Gary Coe, Matt Shepard, Ward Coon, Joseph Schneider, Chris Gibelyou and Les Schneider.
Some deceased members include Lloyd Gifferd, Dale Gibelyou, Robert York, CJ Ewing, Gary Andersen and Dave Hickey.