STAFF WRITER SUZANNE FREEMAN
A clear and present danger confronts the 13-year-old Highland Lakes Honor Guard. Without new members, a cherished service for local veterans soon might be forced to disband.
When military veterans are laid to rest in Burnet and Llano counties, the Highland Lakes Honor Guard is there to pay tribute. A team of four to nine veterans provides a three-volley rifle salute, a bugler to play “Taps,” a chaplain with a sound system, a display of three flags, and a carefully narrated flag-folding ceremony. After members tuck three bullet casings into the flag, with an explanation of the action’s meaning, they formally present the flag to the family.
Since the Highland Lakes Honor Guard began in 2013, its members have attended 542 funerals as of March 2019. While that number steadily grows, it soon could come to a complete halt.
“We need more members,” said U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Max Lantz of Meadowlakes, one of the first five to join the group 13 years ago. “We just need more people participating. It’s our honor to provide military honors to the veterans in Burnet and Llano counties. They might not get them otherwise.”
Once a group of 25, the Highland Lakes Honor Guard is down to 11 members. Although a service can be done with just four, the ceremony is much more meaningful with a full contingent of nine veterans. Working around health issues, jobs, and travels has led to service cutbacks.
“In the last three years, we’ve had to take July, August, and September off,” said Charlie Taylor, who started the Highland Lakes Honor Guard after moving to Bluffton. A veteran of the U.S. Navy as an E-4 Avionics electronics technician, Taylor fashioned the local guard after one in which he served in Pennsylvania. Within a year of operation, the local guard received certification from the Fort Hood Casualty Assistance Center.
Honor guard members purchase their own uniforms, which can be paid out over time, but replacements and repairs are covered by donations to the nonprofit set up to finance the operation. The federal government donates the rifles and ammunition (all blanks). Participants are reimbursed a small amount for gas once their mileage to funerals goes over 300 miles. Any honorably discharged veteran of any branch of the military can join. Training is done on the job.
Taylor considers participation in the honor guard a sacred mission.
“We are honoring someone who has given their time to serve our country and keep it free so we can live like we do,” Taylor said. “We want to be there to send them off. That’s what makes it special.”
Other members of the Highland Lakes Honor Guard, and one prospective member who attended a recent funeral service to see the group in action, agreed.
“It’s important to pay tribute to the veterans who served our country,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Major Robert SkyHawk of Burnet, who is considering joining. “It shows respect to the family. We owe it to ourselves and other veterans to have an organization like this in these counties.”
The Highland Lakes Honor Guard hopes to enlist younger — as well as more — members to keep it going.
“No one wants to disband,” Lantz said. “We just need more people participating.”
Both male and female members are welcome. At a recent graveside service at Lakeland Hills Memorial Park on Park Road 4, U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Rita Baier of Bluffton, the only woman in the group at the moment, served as chaplain.
“I wasn’t the only woman when I started,” she said, adding that, although it would be nice to have more women, she just wants to see more members. “Being a part of this means everything to me — to honor our veterans. It’s a privilege, and we are so honored to do it.”
Anyone interested in joining the Highland Lakes Honor Guard should call Taylor at (325) 248-0450. For more information about the honor guard, visit highlandlakeshonorguard.org.
HONOR GUARD FAST FACTS
• An honor guard provides military honors for special ceremonies on Veterans Day and Memorial Day as well as at veterans’ funerals. This is different from a Color Guard, which presents the flags for meetings or events but does not play “Taps,” fire rifle salutes, or fold and present flags.
• Honor guard services typically occur at the end of a funeral or graveside service. The group starts with a Circle of Prayer before falling into positions just before a funeral service begins.
• A fully staffed honor guard provides a four-gun rifle detail, two to three flag-folders (depending on how windy it is), a chaplain, a bugler, and a presenter.
• The chaplain addresses the audience from a portable microphone and podium that the honor guard brings. The chaplain opens with a prayer honoring the deceased and explains each part of the process as it occurs in this order:
— Rifles are fired three times.
— A bugler plays “Taps.”
— A full-size U.S. flag is ceremoniously folded as the chaplain explains what each of the 13 folds represents.
— Three bullet casings are formally tucked into the folds of Old Glory before the carefully folded flag is presented to the family.
• The honor guard does not provide the flag, which is usually obtained by a funeral home from the VA or local post office with the proper documentation.
• All members of the honor guard are volunteers.
• The Highland Lakes Honor Guard operates free of charge in any weather at the funerals of veterans in Burnet and Llano counties.
• Donations are accepted and appreciated, as this is the only way the honor guard can pay for its expenses.
• To donate to or join the Highland Lakes Honor Guard, contact Charlie Taylor at (325) 248-0450.