New Castle News

December 17, 2012

Honor guards in need of a few good — and younger — men

David Burcham
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Time marches on  — along with the veterans who volunteer with two area honor guard organizations.

But attrition continues to take a toll on membership for the New Castle Area Honor Guard and the Veterans Honor Guard of Beaver and Lawrence counties.

“We need to get younger guys involved,” said Tom Pirlozzi, 73, who is serving his second term as commander of the New Castle-based group.

Ten of the organization’s more than three dozen members are in their 80s. Seven are inactive because of health issues.

“When the weather gets bad, it’s difficult for some of the older guys to be outside, often standing for 30 minutes,” Pirlozzi said.

Joseph Oldaker, commander of the Veterans Honor Guard of Beaver and Lawrence counties for eight of the past 11 years, agrees.

“We’re all getting up in age and we need to get the younger veterans interested, but it seems nobody wants to take the responsibility,” he said. “I understand that it can be difficult for someone who is still working to commit the time.”

Oldaker said some things that the honor guard has done in the past are now falling by wayside because of aging and declining health of membership.

“We’ve had to turn down requests to present the colors and raise the lower flags.”

“If (an event) doesn’t pertain to military functions, we just aren’t able to do it,” Oldaker said. “I apologize, but nobody complains. I think they understand.”

Pirlozzi said funerals always take precedent, even when it means having to cancel previously scheduled events.



JOINED AFTER OBSERVING

Pirlozzi, an Army veteran, joined in 2005 after observing an honor guard ceremony during the funeral of his father-in-law, Larry Pegley.

“It was a wonderful way to honor those who have served,” said Pirlozzi. He said others have joined for the same reason.

 The New Castle Area Honor Guard performs between 100 and 150 funeral services each year — that equates to approximately 2,500 during its 20 some years in existence. 

In addition, the New Castle group has donated more time to perform at some 35 programs for schools, churches and various community organizations.

They have done as many as three funerals in a day.

The New Castle Area Honor guard buried two of its former members this year. Robert Guncy died on Oct. 22 and former commander Phillip Kelly on Nov. 12.

Pirlozzi said it requires no less than 15 veterans to properly perform a military funeral.

Members are positioned at the head and foot of the casket.



NO FEE FOR SERVICES

“There’s no such thing as charging a fee for our services,” Pirlozzi said. “We’ve always felt that way. If a family wants us there, we’ll be there.”

Family members are appreciative of having the honor guard present and often donate money to the organization to help keep it operating.

“Donations from families is how we buy supplies,” Oldaker said.

Pirlozzi said funds are used to purchase and update uniforms for members.

The Veterans Honor Guard of Beaver and Lawrence counties, which is based in Beaver Falls, has 27 members, down from a high of 35.

The group has done a number of events this year, including various dedications honoring the late Leslie Sabo, who posthumously received the Medal of Honor last May.

Among the duties performed by the honor guards are the folding of the flag and presenting it a surviving relative.

Pirlozzi often handles those duties. “Sometimes I have to look away to maintain composure and concentrate on what has to be done,” he said.

“It’s an honor to do what we do, and it’s quite a somber moment.”

Oldaker experiences similar emotions.

“When you fold a flag and present it to a widow, is a powerful moment,” he said. “Being able to honor veterans this way is a wonderful thing.”

“Every year I fear it may fall apart; that nobody to come forward to take our places.”

(Email: d_burcham@ncnewsonline.com)