Donated wheels will help honor guard's mission

Benna Ford of Superior has donated a 12-passenger Ford van to the Duluth Combined Honor Guard. The gift was made ringside Friday at the Superior Showdown II at Wessman Arena.

Benna Ford of Superior has donated a 12-passenger Ford van to the Duluth Combined Honor Guard. The gift was made ringside Friday at the Superior Showdown II at Wessman Arena.

The Duluth Combined Honor Guard is made up of 53 men, many of them World War II veterans. The group performs military funeral rites at services throughout the Northland, said honor guard commander John Marshall, a Gulf War veteran.

"This honor guard will go anywhere we're needed to honor veterans," he said.

The honor guard serves deceased veterans throughout the Northland. It serves at funerals throughout Duluth, Superior and the surrounding area.

At the average funeral, 11 men form the honor guard. During a military funeral, the honor guard provides a three-round volley, taps and a flag presentation.


That is a true military funeral, Marshall said.

In 1999, Congress passed a law that all deceased veterans will receive military honors, but it only pays for a two-man honor guard to deliver the flag to the family.

The volunteer honor guards across the country pick up the slack to provide the volley and taps, Marshall said.

The military provides the honor guard with rifles and ammunition. But the honor guards purchase uniforms and cleaning supplies, Marshall said.

All honor guard members volunteer their time. None of them are paid. Any donations or honorariums the honor guard gets goes into the general fund to pay for supplies, an annual dinner, plaques for the honor guard and mileage when the members need it, he said.

The VFW formed the honor guard in the 1960s, said Joe Venier, an honor guard member.

To begin with, only VFW members were in the honor guard. Then in 2001, the honor guard was running low on volunteers, so the VFW Honor Guard combined with the American Legion and now also includes the Sons of the American Legion as well, Venier said.

In both 2003 and 2004, the honor guard served at 176 funerals. Last year, the group honored 194 veterans, and this year it will top 200, Marshall said.


That adds up to more than two funerals a day, but that is not always the case. Some days there are no funerals; some days there are 12.

The average funeral takes two to three hours between preparations and drive time.

The honor guard doesn't only volunteer at funerals. The group also participates in memorial events and parades and gives presentations about flag etiquette and war history to schools and community groups.

With many of the honor guard members getting older, all the driving is beginning to burn the men out, Marshall said.

"Driving alone is stressful," he said. "I love these guys. I'm concerned about their safety."

Marshall wrote letters to businesses about the honor guard, and its need for a vehicle so the men could ride together when they go to a funeral, parade, memorial, etc.

The honor guard holds a spaghetti fund-raiser every six months, but it doesn't raise enough to buy a vehicle, Marshall said.

Karin Swor, who's father was active early on in the honor guard, approached Ron Stone of Clear Channel with the group's need.


Stone approached several area dealerships with the idea of finding a nine-passenger van for the honor guard in return for advertising of honor guard activities citing transportation by the dealership on Clear Channel stations.

The first few dealerships didn't jump on it, Stone said.

But Benna Ford answered the need with its van. Pat Ringold, owner of Benna Ford, and Brad Bennett, former commander of the VFW presented Marshall with the keys Friday.

The van has Duluth Combined Honor Guard, the American Legion and VFW detailed on its sides, Stone said.

Horton's Gym will provide the operating cost for the van.

The next step is to try and find a gas station to provide a prepaid gas card for the group, Stone said.

Marshall said he expects the number of funerals to stay high into the foreseeable future because the Korean War followed World War II by only eight years and after that came the Vietnam War, he said.

Each day, about 2,000 World War II veterans are buried throughout the nation, he said.


"It makes us take a look at our own mortality," he said. "It burns these guys out but we're just going to keep on doing what we can for the community."

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