Honor Guard marks milestone with 400th funeral

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Phil McKenna (back to camera), John Friel, Bill Hayes and Ed Piana fold the flag. (Blanka Stratford photo)

Tombstones reflect off the hearse pulling into the cemetery. Following immediately thereafter is a black stretch limousine, with the remainder of the funeral procession trailing closely behind. Within each automobile is a set of mourners who silently wait for the next step in commemorating someone else’s journey through life. The rear door of the leading car is opened and the casket is revealed, tightly wrapped by the American flag — the symbol of our nation’s strength and unity.

An American veteran is being honored.

As six pallbearers carry the coffin to its final resting place, a group of eight senior Honor Guards from Canton surrounds the gravesite in unison. Standing tall and proud at the head of the grave, the guard commander calls the assembly to attention and orders them to “present arms,” upon which they salute their fallen comrade. The casket is secured and the pallbearers return to their ranks of friends and family, all bowing their heads as the spiritual leader begins his sermon.

With the final words voiced to send a selfless soul to its predestined maker, the Honor Guard is once again called to attention. The lone sound of a bugle is heard playing Taps, and all remain silent as the haunting tune of the past reminds its listeners of the sacrifices made by the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines defending their country from its enemies, both foreign and domestic.

For Canton Veterans’ Agent Tony Andreotti, the greatest privilege comes in the moments that ensue. As the 24th note of the melody comes to an end, the guardsmen standing to the sides of the casket lean forward and clutch a segment of the flag, raising it to their waists for the ceremonial folding of the flag. The patriotic banner is then neatly pressed into a crisp triangle and presented to the next of kin, signifying not the end of one’s dedication to the land that raised him, but the passing of such spirit to subsequent generations.

“It’s crucial to show families that the country cares about its service members,” said Andreotti. “It doesn’t matter if they served in a war zone. Whether one was a cook or an infantryman or a supply specialist, he or she played a key role in the workings of the entire organization. That veteran gave up very special years — the younger years — to serve his or her country.”

George Sykes

The passing of this Memorial Day in Canton and the near-subsequent 400th Honor Guard burial last week functioned as further support in Andreotti’s resolve to maintain the tributary practice. For him, it has never been about the number, but about the longevity and strength required to continue providing the respect deserved by each one of the honorees.

“The result really shows in the faces of the relatives,” he said. “I always find that the family of the veteran who doesn’t have much of a war history is most shocked that eight men in uniform provide him this type of funeral. At the end of the service, they always come up to the guardsmen and say, ‘Thank you. He would have loved this.’”

This level of commitment has taken Andreotti, 78, over a decade to develop. Initiated in 2000, the funeral program was first composed of Andreotti showing up alone at a memorial service with a recording of Taps and presenting the family with a folded flag. From that time on, the Canton Honor Guard has grown to a current number of 18 volunteer members, most of whom are veterans from the Vietnam, Korean and Second World War eras. Andreotti’s hope is not only to continue the program, but to spur veterans’ agents throughout the state to allocate their time for compiling a list of service members in their local areas and ensuring that family members and funeral directors are aware that this service is provided by the government and is free of charge.

“One of the problems I noticed was that funeral directors wouldn’t address the option of an honor guard ceremony, and family members wouldn’t ask or in some cases wouldn’t even know that they could request this right,” he said. “That’s why it is essential that the veterans department or agency remains aware of the constant flow of service members both in and out of the locality. It’s also important to retain good communication with funeral homes in the area. By federal law, if a family requests an honor funeral, it has to be provided.”

Once Andreotti receives notification from a funeral director, he said, the responsibility of handling phone calls to the Canton Honor Guard falls into the hands of 92-year-old George Sykes, who fought as a Marine in the Battle of Okinawa (codename Operation Iceberg) and earned seven medals throughout his enlistment. As a longtime standing member of the guard himself, Sykes has made thousands of calls to his compatriots, ensuring the assembly of the guardsmen when the time comes to present their undying gratitude.

“It’s been a privilege working with [the members],” said Sykes, five minutes prior to taking his position at the foot of a tomb. “It’s a good group … and I only hope that it continues.”

Since the Canton Honor Guard’s inception, the lives of five members — George Berteletti, Eugene Calibani, Kevin Kelly, Bob Pesaturo and Ed Trunfio — have been paid their due respects as well. Their hard work and perseverance aided in the accumulation of over $100,000 toward the Canton Veterans Department, immensely contributing to the agency’s ability to help others in need. The fruits of their labor are planted in the hearts of the mourners and in the curious faces of the children standing by their sides.

“In the end, it’s all about what they gave,” said Andreotti. “As the hearse drives away, it’s no longer the reflection of the graves. It’s all of us … saluting and saying ‘thank you, on behalf of a grateful nation.’”

Note: For any service member or veteran affiliated with the town of Canton and interested in volunteering for the Honor Guard or aiding the Canton Veterans Department, you may reach the division and Tony Andreotti at 781-821-5005. In addition, any younger veterans who are interested in forming the next generation of providers to those who have rendered our country a great service should contact Blanka Stratford at blankastratford@gmail.com or by telephone at 617-678-7588.

Current members of the Honor Guard: Bob DeYeso, Bob Witt, George Sykes, Dom Duganiero, Bob Wood, Tony Andreotti, Ed Piana, John Friel, Phil McKenna, Bill Hayes, Gerry Gallagher, Frank LaBollita, Ed Lehan, Arline Love, Tom Jenkins, Jack O’Neill, Ernie Trumbley, Paul Cash, Eric Borman

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avatar Posted by on Jun 29 2011. Filed under Features.
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