BY MARY WICOFF email@example.com
---- — DANVILLE — It was 98 degrees during the graveside service, and Rich Darby was soaking wet.
He looked at the honor guard, made up of American Legion members — some in their 80s — but they didn’t flinch. They stood straight, their faces solemn under the summer sun.
That’s when Darby, co-owner of Sunset Funeral Homes, realized he had to do something to help the veterans give their comrades a final farewell.
“This is a local grassroots campaign from our family and staff,” he said, describing the new program, Operation Honor Guard. “We want to put as many boots on the ground as we can to help these guys out.”
When a veteran dies, the Honor Guard steps forward to help give the fallen soldier a dignified, respectful farewell. The volunteers perform military rites at the funeral, serving in all weather conditions, any time of day and without compensation.
In partnership with the Legions, Sunset staff and the Darby family will be collecting money at certain times and places through Nov. 1. That money will be disbursed to local American Legion posts so the veterans can buy uniforms, rifles, raincoats, flags, ammunition and fuel.
The fundraising will take place in towns where Sunset has funeral homes in Vermilion and Champaign counties and Fountain County, Indiana. The first one was held Friday in Covington, Ind.
Friday, Oct. 4, 7:30-9 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., on the squares in Georgetown and Westville.
Friday, Oct. 11, 7:30-9 a.m., and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Casey’s General Store, Oakwood.
Friday, Oct. 18, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., County Market, 1819 Philo Road, Urbana.
Friday, Nov. 1, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Walmart, Danville.
“I think it’s going to be great,” said Tom Morse, commander of the Curtis G. Redden American Legion Post 210. “What Rich is doing for us … we can’t begin to express our thanks. Hopefully, it will be a good fundraiser and keep us afloat.”
The honor guard has done 97 funerals so far this year, and travels to wherever the veteran is going to be buried, including Rantoul and Covington. The members’ ages range from 60 to 89, and they perform the rites in all extremes of weather.
On the hottest day of the year, the veterans were standing in the sun for 40 minutes. They were given the option to move to the shade, Morse said, but none would move — that’s how serious they are about their duties.
The honor guard gets no funds. However, sometimes the family will give them $20 to $50, or the funeral home will add a small amount, designated for the guard, he said.
Donations are nice, he said, but the guard won’t decline its service if there are none.
Darby said he’s impressed with the veterans’ dedication. Some of the men have served in wars, but feel like their duty isn’t over yet.
“I think the families kind of take them for granted,” he said.
Operation Honor Guard will not only raise money, but Darby hopes it also draws attention to the men, adding, “I want the public to gain knowledge about what these guys do.”
During the fundraisers, Sunset staff and family will provide the “sweat equity,” he said. The money will go directly to the American Legions. Funds raised in Danville, for example, will go to Post 210. Funds raised in Covington will be divided among the Perrysville, Cayuga and Veedersburg posts.
Darby hopes this will be an annual campaign. The “boots on the ground” fundraising will end by Veterans Day (Nov. 11), but the website will remain open to take donations.
“This is a really important cause. We want it to grow,” Darby said. “I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised (by the donations).”
The Darby family will supplement the fund, as well, he said, adding, “We’re just giving back to the community.”
To help To make a donation, go to the website www.operationhonorguard.us. Make checks payable to your community's American Legion and write "Honor Guard" in the memo line. Addresses of the participating Legions are listed on the website. Volunteers will be collecting funds at different sites over the next several Fridays.