One of the region's most highly respected ensembles is back in business.
"We shut down Dec. 8 because of the COVID cases but we decided to start again in mid-February as the cases dropped," said John Flick of Franklin. "We are so absolutely glad to be back."
Flick is commander of the Venango Entombment Testimonial Service (VETS) Honor Guard of Venango County. The all-volunteer group was established in May 2004 to provide military honors for veterans' funerals.
The uniform-clad veterans annually conduct services for more than 100 deceased veterans with the highest one-year number set at 141.
Services provided to area veterans by the nonprofit, stand-alone Honor Guard include full funerals to taps, parades, gun salutes, posting of the colors, veteran tribute programs and military escorts. The unit's creed is "To Honor With Dignity."
In late March 2020, the VETS Honor Guard discontinued all military honor ceremonies as a result of the surging coronavirus pandemic. Part of the concern involved close quarters and potential virus spread in the unit's van.
A full military honors service requires from 15 to 17 VETS Honor Guard members, a contingent that includes flag holders, riflemen, buglers and others.
"It just takes one of us on the bus - and a lot of us are older - to test (COVID) positive and then we can't do the services," said Flick. "We just couldn't take the chance."
As the virus caseload declined, the volunteers decided in June to resume the services in funeral homes and in cemeteries for deceased veterans.
But on Dec. 8, rising COVID numbers in the area prompted the Honor Guard to revisit the issue of whether to continue. The decision was to temporarily cease offering the services.
"Even in that short eight months last year, we did 113 services," said Flick. "And a lot of people asked us to set up services later when we could do it again."
The routine changed again within two months.
On Feb. 13, the Honor Guard board of directors voted to start providing memorial services again. A day later, the full membership of about 70 local veterans agreed with the decision.
Area funeral homes, which arrange the ceremonies with the unit at the request of families, were notified.
"We got busy quickly," said Flick. "We did three services last Thursday and one this past Monday. Let's cross our fingers that we can continue."
In the interim period periods when the Honor Guard wasn't providing military services, some families opted to still hold the ceremonies but delay them until the unit was able to start back up.
"When we weren't doing it, they understood," said Flick. "I know it is not the same when you have to delay it, but we told the families we will conduct the ceremonies at their convenience when we can. We will go wherever they want to provide honors. and we have a few of those scheduled."
Veterans are needed
Andy Sentgeorge, retired Air Force veteran, said the Honor Guard is open to all honorably discharged military veterans as well as men and women who are on active duty.
"Participate if you are a veteran," said Sentgeorge. "We are an entirely all-volunteer group - we don't charge and we do everything gratis. We regretted having to pull back and not do the services but now we are back."
Contributions from area residents as well as clubs and other organizations help fund the Honor Guard. One ardent supporter was Jim Eakin who recently passed away, said Sentgeorge.
"Jim was an absolute jewel of a guy and he would go out of his way to do what he could for us," said Sentgeorge. "It is that type of support that keeps us going so we can serve families."
Additional information about the Honor Guard, including details on how to join the group as well as ways to support it, is available by contacting Flick at (814) 493-5147.