Illinois National Guard Funeral and Honors Team Reaches Milestone
Story by Capt. Dutch Grove, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs
SPRINGFIELD, IL (03/06/2013)(readMedia)-- Laying a military veteran to rest can be one of the most emotionally difficult things to do and a group of Illinois National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have carried that burden more than 30,000 times over the past 12 years.
The Illinois National Guard Military Funerals and Honors Team began in August 2001 when then 2nd Lt. Shannon (Niemi) Hicks, a native of Nokomis, Ill., was hired to start the program from scratch.
"We may have supported a few hundred funerals in the year 2000 upon request from the U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center at Fort Leonard Wood, but we didn't have anyone managing our program," said Hicks.
Hicks, now a major assigned as the Inspector General for the Virginia Air National Guard, recalled being a one-woman-band and working 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week to get the program off the ground.
"I even visited the Old Guard at Arlington Cemetery and two or three other states to gain wisdom and skills on how to get the program up and running and how to train the Soldiers," said Hicks.
When Hicks started the program she said it was difficult to find a dependable team because Soldiers were paid a base rate for a day.
Tech. Sgt. Samatha Diskey of Petersburg, Ill., was the first full-time employee Hicks hired and has been the noncommissioned officer in charge of the program for the last five years.
"It all started with just a single team from the General Jones Armory in Chicago consisting of only six Soldiers at that one location," said Diskey.
Today, there are six teams across the state with nearly 70 team members who receive a full day's pay and support more than 300 military funerals each month.
Diskey said the most challenging part of the program in its early days was getting the word out that the program existed. Once word got out, it created a new challenge.
"Another challenge, though now resolved, was setting up satellite offices across the state in order to meet the growing need," said Diskey.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mariah Peterson of Tallula, Ill., has managed the program as the Casualty Operations Branch Chief since August 2009 and has seen the program double its support.
"We went from rendering honors for 150 servicemembers a month to 300. We have certified over 50 Veteran Service Organizations and extended our services to over 400 funeral directors," said Peterson.
Sgt. Brian Merten of Woodstock, Ill., joined the program in 2010 and is one of the team's leaders and a nationally certified Honor Guard instructor. He is responsible for the training and supervision of the team members and coordinating all of the logistical, scheduling and transportation needs.
"We have many instances where, beyond our best planning, something goes wrong and we must scramble to ensure that a veteran receives military funeral honors. For example, we have had Soldiers get into a car accident the day of a service," said Merten.
When the teams are not performing a veteran's last rites, they continuously train the precise movements and painstakingly maintain their Army Service Uniform. Adding to the overwhelming attention to detail is the emotion of saying a final farewell to a fellow veteran.
"It is a very sobering detail, one that takes a lot of flexibility and commitment, professionalism and pride and you must place all emotion aside," said Hicks.
A team member setting aside his emotions is not always easy.
"It was bitterly cold and windy. I folded the flag to our precise standards, faced and stepped off to present the flag to the next of kin, a 13-year old boy with tears streaming down his face," said Merten.
The Illinois National Guard Military Funeral and Honors team has also had the honorable task of rendering military services to former members of their own team. Sgt. Joshua Harris died in combat operations Sept. 17, 2009 and Spc. Simone Robinson was killed in action March 1, 2009. Both served as members of the Funerals and Honors team before deploying to Afghanistan.
"It is always difficult to separate emotion...we try to tell ourselves that we are proud to be involved as a part of their final wishes and even prouder to have known them," said Diskey.
Most of the Soldiers and Airmen who are current or former members of the Military Funerals and Honors team said it is or was the best job they had in the military.
"Honoring those who have preceded us in the defense of our nation, the dignity and meaning behind the mission, still brings tears to my eyes," said Hicks.
With budgetary constraints on the horizon, Peterson said she is concerned for the program, but confident her team will find a way to continue to support every fallen veteran.
"We continue to plan for those 'what if' moments, ensuring we never have to turn down a service," said Peterson. "We will continue to honor our fallen heroes. We will learn to work more with less."
Diskey said the one constant thought that has driven the team since its beginning will continue to drive the team into the future.
"If no Soldier is to be left behind on the battlefield then we cannot afford to falter and not recognize their service and sacrifice when they are being laid to rest," said Diskey.
PHOTO 1 CAPTION: U.S. Army photo courtesy of Illinois National Guard Funeral and Honors/ Staff Sgt. Brandon Page of Marion, with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 130th Infantry in Marion and a funerals and honors instructor, folds the American flag during a rehearsal. The Illinois National Guard Funerals and Honors program recently surpassed 30,000 services performed since the program began in 2001.
PHOTO 2 CAPTION: U.S. Army photo courtesy of Illinois National Guard Funeral and Honors/ Cpl. Brian Merten of Woodstock, Ill., now a sergeant and an Illinois National Guard Funerals and Honors team leader and nationally certified Honor Guard instructor, renders a final salute during the graveside services of a fallen veteran. The Illinois National Guard Funerals and Honors program recently surpassed 30,000 services performed since the program began in 2001.