Spc. Jeremy Woodell, a member of a New York National Guard honor guard, plays Taps at the Dec. 30 burial of Army veteran Ernest Rumbaugh at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Niskayuna, N.Y. (Tim Roske / The Associated Press)
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ALBANY, N.Y. — As precisely as they and their counterparts nationwide had done in the exact manner tens of thousands of times during the past year, the members of the New York National Guard honor guard folded the American flag and solemnly presented it to a relative of a deceased veteran.
The flag presentation during Friday's service for a World War II veteran from the Albany area is part of the same ceremony at each of 136,300 military funerals conducted in 2011 by National Guard honor guard details across the United States and in Puerto Rico and Guam.
That's 10 percent more than the year before and as more World War II veterans die and more families become aware of the tightly regimented and dignified honor details available to veterans, the number will continue to grow, guard officials say.
National Guards in the U.S. provide honor details for more than half of the 200,000-plus military funerals conducted each year. As of Wednesday, the U.S. Armed Services — including the National Guard — had provided honor guards at 221,396 military funerals this year, according to the Pentagon's press office. Military officials said the number will be higher by Sunday, but a final tally for 2011 won't be available until later in January.
By New Year's Day, the New York National Guard's Military Forces Honor Guard will have conducted more than 10,600 military funerals during the past 12 months, the most since the program started in 1999, said Don Roy, director since 2003.
That's second only to the California National Guard's Veteran Honors Program, which conducted nearly 12,900 military funerals in 2010. The final tally for 2011 isn't completed yet, buy the number likely will be higher than last year's, said Sgt. Maj. Daniel DeGeorge, the top-ranking non-commissioned officer in California's program.
The numbers have increased in California by 500 to 1,500 a year for the past seven years, he said, in part because so many of the nation's World War II veterans are dying. In California, New York and elsewhere, the majority of the National Guard's military funerals — more than 90 percent — are for those veterans.
Slightly more than 1.7 million of the 16 million men and women who served in World War II are still alive, and they are dying at a rate of about 850 a day, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Awareness is the other contributing factor to the rise in the number of military services provided.
"The more we educate the public about what's available to their loved-ones who served their country, the more people are making those phone calls," said DeGeorge, who has been with California's honor guard program since it started in 2000.
California's honor guard program consists of 80 full-time members in 12 teams spread across the state, plus about 220 others who volunteer to conduct military funerals.
"The people who do what we do have a passion for serving the veterans," DeGeorge said. "We have guys who will go two weeks without a day off knowing there's a veteran that needs to be laid to rest. We know New York has the same passion."
When Roy took over the New York program in 2003, National Guard details were doing 250 to 300 military funerals a year. Roy set out to increase that number by contacting funeral directors about the military funeral services available to any veterans who were honorably discharged, and by recruiting more soldiers for honor guard details, which at that time were dispatched from offices in Rochester and the Bronx.
Today, New York's honor guard program has 60 full-time soldiers and 70 part-timers working out of nine offices located from Long Island to Buffalo. Most details consist of two or three soldiers who'll typically attend multiple services the same day, Roy said.
"We don't want any veteran to do without these honors," the retired Army master sergeant said. "They've all earned it and deserved it."
It's a rare day that one of the New York's honor guards isn't conducting a military funeral, said Staff Sgt. Erwin Dominguez, a 28-year-old Long Island native who's one of two regional coordinators for the New York honor guard program.
"We do this 24-7, 365 days a year. It's whenever the family wants to do the funeral, we're there," said Dominguez, who joined the New York Army National Guard after serving in the Marine Corps.
Funeral details aren't for every soldier, said Dominguez, who did a tour in Afghanistan with the National Guard. Many can readily handle the strict requirements for dress uniforms and protocols, but some have a change of heart once they face a deceased veteran's grieving family.
"As soon as they go out on a detail, they're like, ‘Whoa, I didn't sign up for this,'" said Dominguez, who has participated in more than 600 military funerals since joining the program in August 2008. "I've seen plenty of guys come and go, doing this."
For those who stick it out, satisfaction comes in knowing they've provided a final tribute to a fellow veteran.
"These soldiers are honored to take care of those who served," Roy said. "We take a lot of pride in what we do."
Friday's service near Albany honored a World War II Army veteran who served in the European and Pacific theaters. Ernest Rumbaugh's experiences helped inspire his niece to join the military.
"It was nice to see. He was one of the reasons I joined the Army," said Sarah Tiekamp of her uncle, a retired General Electric nuclear engineer laid to rest in the Albany suburb Niskayuna.
Tiekamp, of Duncannon, Pa., is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who served eight years in the Army, including four months with an honor guard detail.