The New York Army National Guard's Honor Guard stood at attention, played taps and handed folded flags to the grieving at about 10,200 military funerals in 2012 — 500 fewer than in the year prior.
Despite that drop, the number of funerals at which the Guard has performed military honors annually has been above 10,000 since 2007, and it's expected to stay that way, according to Eric Durr, a spokesman for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs.
"You have the World War II generation dying, and at the same time, you have the Vietnam War generation starting to get to the age which they're starting to die," he explained.
Extensive outreach to funeral directors has also increased awareness that the federally funded service is available to all military members, he said.
According to the United States Census Bureau, there are 950,000 veterans in New York.
In the Capital Region, Guard members formally honor between 70 and 80 deceased service members every month, according to Durr. It's a somber job that's taxing mentally, physically and emotionally, said Staff Sgt. Erwin Dominguez, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the state's Eastern Region of the Honor Guard.
Dominguez has performed military honors at more than 1,000 funerals. In his experience, handing the folded American flag to a grieving family member is the hardest part.
"I gave a flag to a 10-year-old boy the other day and it broke my heart," he said.
Military honors are provided by the Guard at the funerals of Army, Army Reserve, Army Air Corps and National Guard veterans, as well as for those in other branches of the military when needed, if time permits.
Basic military honors, provided for anyone who served honorably, include two or three Guard members, the playing of taps and the presentation of a folded flag to the family.
Full military honors, reserved for decorated military members, soldiers with many years of service and those killed in action, include a six-person detail to carry the casket, an officer in charge, a bugler, a firing party, a military chaplain and a general officer who presents the flag to the family, according to Durr.
Fifty New York Army National Guard soldiers work full time with the Honor Guard, along with 40 who perform the duty on a part-time basis.
Guard members go through a three-day training period and a physical fitness test, and spend hours tending to their uniforms, according to Dominguez.
When performing military honors, he said they arrive at the grave site 45 minutes before the funeral is set to begin. They practice, make sure their uniforms are perfect, and stand at attention when the deceased military member arrives. Typically, following a service delivered by a clergy member, a bugler plays taps. Then, two or three of the soldiers fold the flag that was draped over the casket and present it to the family.
Dominguez said he takes pride in ensuring that each funeral is performed with the precision and respect that the deceased soldier deserves.
"These guys, whether in war or peace, they've made that sacrifice to defend their country," he said. "In my eyes, it's the most honorable thing you can do for your country, so we want the best out there."
To request military honors at a funeral, ask your funeral director. A copy of the soldier’s discharge papers will be required.