Funeral Honors Program continues to honor veterans during pandemic

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the VNG Military Funeral Honors Program are continuing to provide services for deceased veterans across the Commonwealth despite challenges from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Full-time members of the program conducted refresher training Oct. 22, 2020, at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia, practicing their graveside services adjusted for safety and social distancing. It was the team’s first time training together since the onset of the pandemic back in March 2020. Despite the pause in training, the team has been extremely busy conducting services for deceased veterans across the state. 

“When the pandemic first set in, our missions went drastically lower than what we’re used to,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Cain, the senior instructor for the Virginia Program. “The national and state cemeteries shut down for about two months. So, all those families had to backdate or postpone their funerals. Once those opened back up, it kind of seemed like everything opened back up all at once. Seven days a week, everyone was working.”

Continuing with missions during a pandemic has created plenty of challenges for the program and has forced adjustments to the way military honors are rendered at funerals. Instead of the traditional nine-soldier detail, only three Soldiers are attending, meaning they aren’t able to perform a rifle salute or casket detail. Instead, one Soldier plays Taps and the other two stand distanced from the casket and funeral attendees until they fold and present the flag. During it all, Soldiers are wearing masks covering their mouths and noses. 

“I know a lot of places shut down during the pandemic,” said Cain. “Not us. We had to push through it and make a lot of adjustments on the fly. We’ve been very cautious of course. Everybody is wearing masks.”

Cain explained that they’ve tried to keep their services as close to standard protocol as possible. 

“Our team really worked together to maintain our standard, as well as making sure we’ve met the requirements of the families and funeral homes,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our full-time staff and our part-time staff.”

The full-time staff focused on those new adjustments as well as standard protocol during the recent training session.   

“Instead of running a class with new Soldiers, my idea was to bring our full-time staff in, make sure everyone is on the same page,” said Cain. “Not to rewrite the SOP, but to make sure that everyone in the state who’s working is following our SOP as closely as possible while maintaining social distancing and staying safe.”

In December, Cain will resume training new Soldiers in the MFH program. That training will not only focus on the basics of rendering military honors properly and consistently, but will also prepare them for new challenges they will face because of COVID-19. 

“Some families will want us to present the flag to a separate chair, offset from the family,” said Cain. “We still do the regular protocol, kneeling down next to the chair and say the presentation speech, then stand up. The family still needs to hear that speech.”

“We’ve had services that have been telecasted on a streaming platform where the families all log in, or they’re broadcasted live over social media,” said Sgt. 1st Class Troy Sisson, and MFH Program area coordinator. “We’ve been in the chapel doing military honors and there’s been like four people there but we’re broadcasted to the entire country.”

The use of technology during services has led to some changes in the way the flag is presented to loved ones during the service as well. 

“We’re also starting to see an increase in family members who can’t make it to services because of the pandemic,” said Cain. “So, what we’re seeing a lot of is iPads. Cell phones. We’ve actually had to present the flag to iPads. They’ll set the iPad in a chair, and we’ll just follow the protocol and present the flag. It’s been different, and our team has adapted to this so well.”

For Sisson, it’s all about the mission at hand. 

“We kept trucking through. Our job is mission first to get those veterans their burial rites,” said Sisson. “A lot of these families, the last thing they see is us. I like to be the lasting impression to the family on that service member’s military experience.”

“This program takes a lot of dedication, and you through this stuff on top of it – to see the way the team has just excelled through it has just been something amazing,” said Cain. 

Two MHP Program Soldiers were recently rewarded for their hard work and professionalism. Staff Sgt. Lauren Casey and Pfc. Donte Green were presented with challenge coins by Brig. Gen. K. Weedon Gallagher, the VNG Land Component Commander, after he was contacted by the grateful family of a recently deceased veteran Casey and Green provided honors for. 

“This is probably the most selfless service job you could ever have,” said Cain. “To see the Soldiers get recognized makes me very proud, because they deserve the recognition, even though none of us are in it for that. It’s about the veteran and the family, let’s make sure they get their honors.”