RITTMAN, Ohio - As the wind whispered across the sea of grey-white gravestones, where the bodies of more than 22,000 U.S. military veterans lie, there is the sharp command of the leader of an honor guard. "Honor guard, ten-hut," barks the squad leader. "Present arms!"
With that, a squad of men in trench coats bearing military ranks and helmets bring their weapons to a vertical position as they hold them in front of their bodies. It is a military salute offered by men whose faces shows the lines of life. Their ages range from 60 to 80.
At the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery in Rittman, there is a volunteer honor guard comprised of veterans which is present for every funeral. Since 2000, when the cemetery was established, an honor guard has stood a silent vigil, offered a 21-gun salute, and stood nearby for every funeral.
"Those who served to protect us," said Cy Schrock of Wooster in explaining why the honor guard units see funeral service as their duties. "Whether we know them makes no difference," he said.
There have been times when, at a veterans burial, there is only the funeral director. Even though the deceased may not have had family nor friends in attendance, an honor guard is present.
"It is a last farewell," said Matt Hanna of Wooster, choking back sobs as he talked of the importance of giving veterans special tribute at funerals.
There are more than three dozen honor guard units from northern Ohio which perform voluntary service at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery. Each unit will have the duty for several days before stepping aside for another volunteer unit. On some days, there are as many as 15 burials.
"If it wasn't for the veterans, if it wasn't for the servicemen, where would this country be?" asked John Dague, a veteran of the U.S. Marines who believes in giving final tribute to veterans who have died. Any U.S. military veteran who was honorably discharged, no matter how long he or she was in the service, qualifies for free burial in the cemetery. The spouse of a veteran may also be buried there, too.
Throughout the sea of gravestones, visitors may walk, touching the places where their loved ones and friends are buried.
"They did a gorgeous job," said Tamara Cesek, recalling the honor guard salute for her husband several months ago. "They had the gun salute and the flag," she remembered as her eyes welled with tears.
"It was a wonderful ceremony," said Erica Hidgevi. "It's just kind of hard to talk about it," she added, her voice choking back the tears.
For John Dague, the cemetery has become a familiar place because he has walked among the gravestones so much. Dressed in a red jacket and cap bearing the insignia of his beloved Marine Corps, Dague offers a salute to the thousand buried in Rittman. He and all the other volunteer honor guardsmen are of a single mindset which is to pay tribute to any man or woman who served in the uniform of the U.S. military.
Though they are aging, they stand in quiet duty, offering salutes to the passing caskets and to the music which is played at every funeral. It is "Taps," a recorded melody of a single bugle. The lonesome notes are carried by the wind across the gravestones and surround the family and friends of those gathered for the latest funeral at the national cemetery.
The honor guard of aging men whose hair is gray and whose faces are well-lined, showing their years. Each man stands at attention while the casket and family members pass by. Each man knows if he so chooses, he, too can be buried at the cemetery which the government has set aside specifically for veterans of the military.
At the end of the ceremony, when the family members have driven away, the members of the honor guard gather together and wait. Usually, there is another funeral and they view it as their duty to give another farewell tribute. A last farewell.