Color guard gives veterans final honors
Kimberly American Legion post assists at many funerals
By Joanne Flemming
Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Green Bay will remember on Monday, May 28, the men and women who served in the military from the French and Indian War up to the present at "A Soldier's Story: Past & Present."
Re-enactors and veterans will give a history of their time and answer questions. A display from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, along with personal displays, will be on exhibit. Popular music from those eras will be featured.
The special Memorial Day event will run from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the park on Webster Avenue, just north of Hwy 172.
Admission to the park is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for teens/children, and children under 5 are free. For more information, phone (920)448-5150 or 1-800-721-5150 or on the web, www.heritagehillgb.org.
The seventh corporal work of mercy has special meaning for a group of Kimberly retirees.
As members of the Kimberly American Legion post's color guard, they not only obey the admonition to bury the dead, they honor them - if they are veterans - with military rites.
"It's the last you can do for them," said Ed Klarner, who since 1990 as served as commander of the unit. Thirteen of its 16 members are Catholic and most are members of Holy Name of Jesus Parish.
Memorial Day, a national holiday to honor service men and women who died defending the country, will be observed Monday, May 28.
Ray Pitsch, past color guard commander, and Matt Vander Boogaard, member, said the unit will participate in the funeral of any honorably discharged veteran of any war if invited by family or the funeral director. It is the only area unit they know of that performs the rites for people who were not members of their American Legion post.
The three men said because it is the only unit willing to travel, members attend funerals throughout, and even outside, the Fox Valley.
Pitsch joined the guard in the late 1940s right after he joined the Legion. Vanden Boogaard became a member in the early 1960s. Klarner said he had been a member for 15 years.
All three are World War II veterans. Pitsch served with the Army in Europe and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Vanden Boogaard was a member of the Army Medical Corps, serving both in the United States and France.
Klarner was with the constabulary in Germany, patrolling borders near the end of the war.
In the early 1950s, Pitsch took over the color guard's leadership. His goal was to build its membership up to 16, including a commander, two color bearers, two color guards and a bugler. The remainder are squad members.
He stepped down as commander several years ago because of failing health.
As commander since 1990, Klarner schedules the guard's participation in funerals, checks on equipment, and gives commands during the rites.
The full 16 do not always attend funerals, Vanden Boogaard and Klarner said, because of other commitments. But "you have to have 16 to look good," added Pitsch.
Each member wears a military-style uniform of white helmet, white dress shirt, navy blue tie, navy blue Eisenhower jacket with gold braid and navy blue trousers with gold stripes. Until several years ago, the men wore white leggings over their shoes.
At a funeral, the unit escorts the body inside the church, then follows behind the casket as the priest or minister leads it to the altar. They remain in the pews during the Mass or service - a practice which the family appreciates, noted Klarner. "Most of them [unit members] are really religious men. They believe in their faith."
After the service, they escort the body out of the church and perform the military rites, including presentation of the colors, a 21-gun salute and the playing of "Taps." When the rites are over, the unit escorts the body back to the hearse.
In the early years, the men went to 1-3 funerals a year. Now, because so many World War II veterans are dying, they go to 20-30 a year.
Unit members range in age from the late 60s to early 80s. At almost 83, Vanden Boogaard is the oldest member.
When asked why they joined the color guard, Pitsch said, "It is something you want to do to help service the veterans' families."
"We were all buddies," said Vanden Boogaard. "We were in service fighting for our country, so we kind of respect each other."
Their involvement, added Pitsch, can also be seen as an expression of their Catholic faith and their faith in mankind.
Vanden Boogaard agreed: "You believe in God. You're supposed to treat your fellow man and honor him. As far as I'm, concerned, it's just a natural reaction. If you're any kind of individual, you care for one another."
The color guard also participates in parades, dedications, flag raisings, Memorial Day and Veterans' Day services and the Legion's state conventions.