As former service personnel who now attend military funerals, local Veterans of Foreign Wars Honor Guard members are accustomed to deploying when needed — but now it’s Mount Airy officials who’ve sent in the “reinforcements.”
Specifically, the city Board of Commissioners responded with a $20,000 donation after learning of major transportation problems being experienced by the Honor Guard — presently the only active unit in Surry County which provides military rites at veterans’ funerals.
That move, which hadn’t been listed on the agenda for the board’s meeting Thursday night, resulted from an appearance by Honor Guard representatives of VFW Post 2019 based at Veterans Memorial Park. They presented the flag and led a reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance, a duty sometimes undertaken by local Scout groups to open council sessions.
The Honor Guard contingent remained for the meeting and, during its public forum portion, described problems it is encountering with the small bus used to transport the group and its rifles and other equipment to veterans’ funerals.
It is a 1992 model with more than 200,000 miles, VFW Commander David Raborn said during the public forum regarding the vehicle increasingly experiencing costly mechanical problems, which needs replacing.
Both Raborn and Sam Gunter, another Honor Guard member speaking during the forum, said the group stands ready to attend funerals of any military veteran by request, not only in Surry but adjoining counties of North Carolina and Virginia.
“Eighty-five percent of the time, I’m the driver,” Gunter told city officials and audience members. And while reliable service is provided by the Honor Guard, a joint effort between the Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain VFW posts, its present mode of transportation is not.
“When we go out, we don’t know if we’ll get back,” said Gunter, also a Vietnam War veteran.
The problems include the climate-control functions of the bus — which “work” well at the wrong times.
“We now have a reliable air-conditioning system, and in a few months we’ll have a reliable heating system,” Raborn joked, but he seemed dead-serious about being able to cool off from a military funeral held in July.
“We can’t go out and look for a bus because we’re a poor post,” he said, explaining that most of its available funding goes to aid veterans and spouses in distress along with scholarships, Christmas giveaways, meals for those in need and other charitable activities.
Yet the VFW post has managed to accumulate $5,000 toward another Honor Guard bus, with the financial assistance from city government sought to help the unit come closer to realizing its goal of a replacement.
“We, the veterans of foreign wars, are here to serve you,” Gunter stated during the public forum, “and we’re just asking for help.”
After hearing about the Honor Guard’s plight, city officials reacted favorably, beginning with Commissioner Dean Brown reaching into his wallet to produce a $100 bill that he handed to Raborn.
Later in the meeting during closing remarks by officials, Commissioner Jon Cawley moved that the board appropriate the $20,000, with the 5-0 decision greeted by vigorous applause from the audience.
(Brown didn’t ask for his $100 back, saying the group can use it for gasoline.)
More still needed
“That’s a remarkable thing,” Raborn said Monday of the commissioners’ action Thursday night, but added that the Honor Guard remains short of its ultimate goal.
“We still need more,” he said of the fund-raising effort toward a replacement bus.
“We’ve been pricing vehicles at $25,000 (the sum now in hand),” Raborn said, but that generally has been the cost of buses with “quite a bit of mileage,” more than 100,000 miles in some cases. If it acquired one of those, the Honor Guard soon would be right back where it started, he indicated.
Ideally, the group would prefer a bus from the 2011 model year on up with lower mileage, an expense of around $40,000.
“I am going to try to get over to the county,” Raborn said Monday of his intent to approach the Surry Board of Commissioners to ask for its financial participation in addition to that of city government.
“They (county commissioners) were instrumental in getting the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) a new vehicle,” said Raborn, who quickly added that “we don’t want a new vehicle.”
The public also can contribute through an account set up for the local VFW at BB&T (Branch Banking and Trust) by simply showing up at one of its branches and directing a donation to go toward that purpose.
In the meantime, the Honor Guard will continue its mission of attending veterans’ funerals to perform “Taps,” rifle salutes and other activities to honor those who served their country.
“We did two last week,” Raborn said Monday of funerals served. “We did 66 last year, and we’re already to 28 this year.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.