Standing strong with honor
By NICK SCHWIEN
It's an honor to serve, and those who have paid for America's freedom deserve to have that honor bestowed on them.
That's the way Gene Bernbeck views it. And that's a reason why the commander of the Sons of the American Legion squadron in the small town of Utica is so passionate about providing military honors at funerals of veterans and on military holidays.
His group of approximately 30 volunteers in a town of less than 300 is bucking the trend of honor guards in small communities dwindling in numbers.
"When we started this deal, we enjoyed doing it because we enjoyed honoring our veterans who passed away," Bernbeck said. "We decided we were going to give it 100-percent effort."
Bernbeck, 58, said he is one of the oldest members of the group, with most in their 20s or 30s.
That younger blood has provided the small Ness County town with a dynamic group of honor guard members.
Bernbeck has seen the national trend of honor guards going by the wayside in smaller towns. Utica was on the verge of similar towns in northwest Kansas 15 years ago when the SAL squadron was started.
"We were in the same boat 15 years ago as towns like Quinter and Ransom and Dighton now," he said. "They all had enough veterans at the time. But now death and attrition have them looking at the same situation we were. We're a fine-tuned cadre ready to go at a moment's notice."
Many towns in western Kansas, at the request of funeral home directors, have had to call larger towns for assistance when a veteran dies. Soldiers from Fort Riley near Junction City or the Wichita area often travel to provide military rites.
Even then, usually, it's not a full honor guard, but perhaps two soldiers.
With many honor guard members in the area having served in World War II or the Korean War, those veterans are now aging and no longer are able to help with military services.
Rod Moyer, the National Guard state coordinator for military funeral honors in Kansas, has seen a depopulation in honor guard members. He knows that shortfall will grow even larger.
"According to statistics from the Census, in the next few years we are going to lose 6,000 veterans in Kansas alone," he said. "That's a lot."
Moyer has been coordinating with different cities in the state to try to provide National Guard support at funerals. In addition to having volunteers in Topeka, he's also coordinated efforts in towns such as Kansas City, Leavenworth, Wichita and Dodge City.
He said he would like to eventually work on getting a coordinated effort in Hays to provide services for the northwest Kansas region.
"Last year, we did about 1,100 services alone," he said of the National Guard. "Fort Riley did about 500 or so. That's just on our side. The Navy and Air Force did some, too."
Moyer said the Dodge City group has been beneficial to helping provide honors, especially in western Kansas when groups from the eastern half of the state can't make it.
"When you get out in little towns in Kansas, sometimes Fort Riley doesn't send out guys or it's too far for them to drive," he said.
That's why area and local honor guards have been so important. Families want to give their loved ones the respect they've earned from their service to the country.
Joel Fitzgerald II, funeral director at Fitzgerald Funeral Home in Ness City, said he's been pleased with the efforts of area honor guards that provide funeral honors. But he has noticed a slight decrease in participation due to age.
Many members who served in World War II, for instance, have a hard time standing for the duration needed.
"And there's doctor's appointments, too," Fitzgerald said. "It's amazing how often you call and they say they can't get guys because of doctor appointments. As you get older, more and more have those appointments."
Fitzgerald has been pleased with the local and area units helping when asked.
"We really appreciate them, whether they're local guys or national guys," he said. "We appreciate all they do and all they've done."
When Lynette Stenzel's father, Carl "Carlie" Stieben, passed away in 2011, she knew it was important to provide him with the respect he had earned.
"Some of the guys have done it for 60 years," she said about honor guards. "Most who do it say it's the last thing they can do for a comrade. They still have their back."
Stenzel and her husband, Loren, are active in Ness City's American Legion and are instrumental parts of the veterans memorial outside the legion building -- as well as many other veterans' activities throughout the state. She knows how much time many veterans put into helping with honor guards or color guards, and she's thankful for all they time they commit.
In fact, Loren Stenzel and his father have more than 100 combined years of service to honor guards or color guards.
"We don't realize how much time veterans continue to give for their fellow veterans," she said. "They do it for the respect in honor of the other veterans."
While some organizations are only able to send two soldiers at times to funerals, Bernbeck's squadron usually pulls out all the stops.
He said it's no stretch to have seven rifleman, four color guard members and others show up to honor a veteran. He said those taking part also take great pride in honoring the fallen the best they can.
"We get compliments from relatives of the veterans that passed away," Bernbeck said. "That boosts our ego to keep at it."
And, it helps keep the tradition of honor guards alive in western Kansas, even as some veterans no longer can serve that role.
"Honest engine, we were having a funeral every 30 days," Bernbeck said about the trend 15 years ago when the Utica SAL group started. "We decided to get a handful of guys together because we weren't honoring our veterans the way they should have been. Right away, we had 25 or 30 signed up."