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Published: Saturday, 2/19/2005

Veterans burial corps faces reality of fewer volunteers

BY TAD VEZNER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The 24 notes of the Civil War dirge "Taps" have been sounded over soldiers' graves for more than a century. A line of soldiers firing three volleys into the air once signaled the clearing of the dead from a battlefield.

But some at the Lucas County Burial Corps - a local organization that performs military burial services - worry that both traditions are in danger of becoming memories at local cemeteries.

"We shoot for six riflemen. But lately, at times, we can get down to two rifles," said Al Merritt, 83, of Toledo, a World War II veteran who has been with the corps for seven years.

"And if there's two funerals in a day, there's times we just can't do it."

And some local funeral directors, who offer the free service to anyone with a deceased family member who was once in the Armed Services, are noticing the trend.

"If they don't have people to take the places of their founders, they will be dissipating," said Susan Dorfmeyer Strup, fourth-generation director of the Foth-Dorfmeyer Funeral Home in Toledo.

Made up mostly of veterans of World War II and the Korean War, all among the burial corps agree that they are badly in need of reinforcements - reinforcements that have thus far not come from younger veterans of later wars.

"Most of those guys are still working, or busy, and for whatever reason they're not involved," said Garry Gilly, 58, of Toledo, commander of the local burial corps.

The corps used to only accept people from Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion posts, "but now we're open to any veteran who wants to help us out. We need the guys," Mr. Gilly said.

The corps is down to 12 members in the winter months - about half of what it was six years ago.

And they have long since given up on having a live bugler play "Taps." The extreme shortage of buglers nationwide caused the corps to buy a $600 "electronic" bugle, which looks like a real bugle and plays the dirge at the push of a button.

Dave Tippett, 49, of Toledo, is a bugler who used to volunteer "occasionally" to play at local funerals before the electronic bugle.

"Occasionally, for a while, was like every day before they brought in the electronic bugle," said Mr. Tippett, who never served in the military.

He volunteers at local funerals, he said, because the person in the casket "is somebody who's given. I feel that if somebody can give their energy or life for me, the least I can do is play for them."

As for what's better, the live version or the recording, Mr. Tippett gets exasperated when asked. "I know it's more convenient for them. But of all the things that can be imitated through a machine, the one they can't is the human soul," he said.

But those familiar with the older traditions say that what's happening to the burial corps is a symptom of a larger problem - one affecting larger veterans' organizations from which the burial corps once drew its members.

"Are we losing membership? Yes - and quickly," said Jack Pietras, Americanism chairman of American Legion Post 587 on Alexis Road.

"The Legion post used to be the local watering hole in Toledo, but that's not the case anymore."

Gene Gorski, who commanded VFW Post 5530 at 415 East Central Ave. in 2000 and 2001, agrees - especially considering what's happened to the post's own burial corps.

"Five or six years ago, we used to have 30 to 36 members in our burial corps. Now we have 13," Mr. Gorski said. "We've lost 'em. Period. I'm 77, and I'm the kid there."

Part of the problem, Mr. Pietras believes, is not the typical lament - that younger generations don't seem to respect the old traditions or get active in the old clubs as much. It's that they were never given the chance.

"When a vet came home from Vietnam, you were really looked down upon. And some that tried to join the Legion, they weren't immediately eligible," said Mr. Pietras, who himself initially was denied membership in 1966.

"There's very few from the Vietnam era joining our burial corps - definitely less than I thought we'd get," Mr. Merritt said.

Legion rules did not allow members in the organization for Vietnam veterans until a change was approved by Congress in September, 1966, followed by a series of later, more inclusive changes that finally ended in 1979.

But many, like Mrs. Dorfmeyer Strup, said the declining memberships also could be due to younger generations finding different ways to have fun.

"Those clubs were true forms of socialization, companies of friends. But with the younger generations, there are so many other activities they can be involved in these days," she said.

Still, some see hope on the horizon.

"There's small signs, things you might not notice, but we do," Mr. Pietras said. "The ribbons on cars, the people showing Blue Star flags. I do see it coming back a bit."

Blue Star flags in the windows of homes began being used in World War I to show that a family member was on active duty.

Mrs. Dorfmeyer Strup agreed with Mr. Pietras' perceptions.

"I think the families of individuals serving in our current war seem to be closer in their family connections and traditions than people serving in the Vietnam War," she said. "It just seems to be that way."

Last Thursday, the funeral of Walter Keller, a veteran of World War II, began with his niece, Shirley Gerst, trudging through the snow toward her uncle's grave site.

Once the American flag that had covered Mr. Keller's casket was folded, the line of rifles fired, and "Taps" played, Mrs. Gerst, of Temperance, walked slowly back to her car, holding the flag and spent rifle shells in her hands.

"It's so touching. I'm so glad they came out here on a day like this," she said.

Contact Tad Vezner at:

tvezner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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