BIGFORK – At a Missoula cemetery two autumns ago, a father stood alone at his son’s burial. He watched as three Honor Guard soldiers conducted military funeral services, paying respect to a fallen U.S. Army veteran. Save for the gravedigger, there was nobody else there that day.
“It was just the father, the son, the gravedigger and the three of us,” Sgt. Dan Reese, one of the three Honor Guard soldiers, recalled recently. “I feel it was important that we were there – that we had made the funeral memorable rather than a disappointment.”
And so it is. One man’s sorrow is another man’s duty. As regional coordinator and flag folder for the Montana Honor Guard, Reese understands this. He understands sorrow. He is surrounded by it all the time, yet it is not sorrow that draws him to cemeteries across western Montana, it is honor. Indeed, it is a veteran’s final honor.
“It’s something I feel I’ve been called to do,” Reese said. “Due to the military experience I’ve had in the past and having lost friends in combat, it gives me the drive to give the last honors to my fellow soldiers.”
Reese, 43, is Northwest Montana’s coordinator for the Honor Guard, which is part of the National Guard. He oversees a team of 26 soldiers who do their best to make sure no veteran’s funeral in the area goes without military honors, so long as that’s what the family wishes.
Last year, Reese’s team conducted military honors at more than 200 funerals. Reese personally participated in more than 80, folding flags with another team member and presenting the flags to family of the deceased. Honor Guard soldiers also serve as pallbearers during military funerals. At times, buglers are deployed.
The Honor Guard has grown significantly in Montana since Denny Lenoir took over as state coordinator in 2006. When he started, Lenoir said there were only 13 soldiers performing about 90 funerals a year.
Today the Honor Guard has 108 members divided into six regions, including Reese’s. During the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, they carried out 845 funerals. Montana has one of the highest per-capita populations of veterans in the country.
“He’s the one who’s really groomed Montana’s funeral honors program,” Reese said of Lenoir.
The Honor Guard serves veterans of all military branches with the requirement that they have been honorably discharged. Except for full-time coordinators like Reese, Honor Guard members have regular day jobs and do the funerals on their own time. They may receive compensation, but Lenoir and Reese said funding is a constant issue. Ceremonies are done at no cost to the family.
Lenoir said the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy Reserve also have funeral services in Montana, but not to the capacity of the National Guard. This is partly due to the state’s lack of bases. For example, Washington has the Fort Lewis Army base, which enables the Army to conduct some of its own funeral services, Lenoir said. In Montana, the Honor Guard does all of the Army’s funeral honors.
But even in states with more bases, the National Guard is the primary source of military funeral services. Lenoir said nationwide the National Guard conducts about 85 percent of all Army funerals and more than 50 percent of military funerals for all branches.
After he became Montana’s Honor Guard coordinator, Lenoir said he began to actively reach out to National Guard soldiers across the state. Once they heard about the Honor Guard, Lenoir said many of them became interested. Those efforts helped ignite the program’s rapid growth.
“It was just about going out there and actually getting the word out,” Lenoir said. “They wanted to give honors to those who have served our country.”
Recruits must take a training course. It was at one of these training courses that Lenoir first met Reese. Lenoir said Reese “stood out a little from the rest” of the trainees, so he kept his eye on the recruit’s progress. What he saw then is what he still sees today in Reese: an innate ability to handle a very difficult and delicate job.
“He works very well with both the military side and the civilian side,” Lenoir said. “You’re dealing with civilians like funeral directors and family who may have no military experience at all, but he makes them comfortable.”
“He’s got that type of personality,” Lenoir added. “He’s easy to get along with and he’s an inspiration and a role model for younger soldiers.”
Reese served in the Marines from 1986-1994 before moving to Montana where he married his wife, Robin. The two of them recently opened a coffee and martini bar called Blondie’s in Bigfork.
Three years ago Reese joined the National Guard after working civilian jobs. He said he was inspired to enter into the Honor Guard after watching a military funeral where members of a Navy SEAL team pinned their seals on the casket of a soldier who wasn’t even part of their unit.
“It’s one thing to do it for your fallen team member, but to do it for someone who wasn’t is something else,” Reese said. “Watching that whole funeral, I was like, ‘I have to be a part of that.’”
Today, as an Honor Guard regional coordinator, Reese does all he can to ensure no veteran in his area falls through the cracks. He maintains regular contact with funeral directors, as does Lenoir at the state level, who contact him if a family wants military honors. He peruses the obituary sections of local newspapers on a daily basis.
At funerals, a two-man Honor Guard team folds the flag and presents it to the next of kin. Lenoir said local veterans’ groups consisting of members from organizations such as the VFW and American Legion help with the military honors, often providing buglers and firing parties. Reese works with the United Veterans of the Flathead.
To properly carry out a military funeral, with pinpoint-perfect folds in the flag and no delays, requires training, repetition and the ability to adapt on the spot. Reese has performed services in Sunburst in negative-20 weather and has waited for six hours on the barren Blackfeet Indian Reservation plains waiting for native ceremonies to run their course before the body was brought to him.
But what cannot be learned through mere training and repetition is how to deal with the fragile emotions of a family in distress. As Reese says, it takes “a certain person” to do the job.
“You never know what kind of response you’re going to get from the family, whether they just break down right there in front of you,” Lenoir said. “Some of them hold their composure.”
“Sometimes you’re presenting a flag to a young child; sometimes it’s a widow in her 90s,” he added. “It’s definitely a challenging mission.”
When Reese presents the American flag to the closest kin of a deceased veteran, he understands the moment’s delicateness. He has stood before families of the fallen before and he has lost his own friends before. He understands sorrow.
And he may think of those friends as the funeral proceeds, but he stays committed to the moment because he also understands honor. He knows he is needed in this painful yet proud moment, when the flag and family unite, when veterans are laid to their final rest.
He knows they have earned that.
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