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Veterans can be honored one last time at gravesite

Providing military funeral honors is life-changing

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The sound of gunfire in a cemetery, followed by a bugler playing taps, means one thing — a veteran is being honored for perpetuity. On Long Island and in New York City, the ceremony is conducted by members of the 11th New York Regiment, which provides free military funeral honors. A veterans service organization, it has 32 members, including New York Guard veteran Alex Gallego, from East Norwich, and Glen Cove resident Richard Arias, a Navy veteran. They continue to serve their country, they say, by honoring fellow veterans and offering comfort to their grieving families.

The 11th New York Regiment is part of United States Volunteers, whose heritage dates to Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the nation’s last volunteer cavalry unit. Its members, who fought in the Spanish-American War, were known officially as the United States Volunteers.

Gallego, 52, the 11th New York Regiment’s recruiting officer, joined in 2017. Having completed his service in the New York Guard, he followed the recommendation of​ a friend and watched the regiment drill at the Long Island National Cemetery. “I saw them doing maneuvers and folding the flag that day,” Gallego recalled. “What touched me most was, everyone shared the same reason as to why they were involved, saying, ‘We do this to honor our vets.’”

Members are cross-trained to perform all duties, which include firing three volleys from ceremonial rifles adapted for blank ammunition, folding the American flag and, for the more musical, playing taps. The purpose, in addition to honoring the dead with family and friends present, is to let anyone within earshot know that a veteran is being laid to rest.

“We give the family that last touch of their loved one,” Gallego said, “and the honor they deserve for serving their country.”

Requests for military funeral honors are made to the appropriate branch of service, either by the deceased’s family or a funeral director, which is most common. Proof of service — in the form of discharge papers — is required.

Arias, 65, graduated from Hicksville High School and then served in the Navy, where he was a combat medic from 1974 to 1980. Two years after his discharge, he joined the 4th Marine Division in Glen Cove, and was a reservist from 1982 to 1990. He has lived in Glen Cove for three years.

Eight months ago, Gallego asked Arias to join the 11th New York Regiment. Both are members of Amvets North Shore Veterans Memorial Post 21, in Oyster Bay.

Arias said he has taken part in 14 “missions” — military funeral honors. “It was more than I expected,” he said. “It’s very fulfilling to do something like this after a military career. It’s my honor to do this for the veterans and their families. I find it very moving.”

Reginald Butt, a former commander of the Oyster Bay American Legion, said the regiment does a “fantastic” job of honoring veterans when they die. He remembers when the Veterans Administration would send two servicemen to a veteran’s gravesite before the New York Regiment was founded. The regiment sends a minimum of three and as many as eight members to conduct the ceremony.

Butt said he was saddened that during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, deceased veterans could not receive military honors at their funerals. “We lost nine veterans at our post last year and four in 2020,” he said. “Our post has been spreading the word about the 11th New York Regiment. They do an outstanding job.”

The regiment most often conducts the ceremonies at national cemeteries, such as the Long Island National Cemetery or Calverton National Cemetery. But it will also send units to other cemeteries.

Gallego said he has taken part in 180 missions, usually five or so per month. “My feelings grow stronger as I do this,” he said. “The more we move away from these traditions, the easier it is to forget [veterans]. It’s important that certain things never get forgotten.”

Arias comes from a military family: His father and brother are also veterans. He recalled seeing his first military funeral honors when his father, Henry Arias Sr., a World War II veteran, died three years ago. “It’s such a nice service,” Arias said. “When I do it, I feel blessed that I can be there. We put our hearts and souls into honoring our veterans one last time. I hope one day I will have this done for me.”

The ceremony also includes the presentation of the American flag to the family, along with three polished shell casings in a small gold mesh bag. They represent tradition, Gallego said: “duty, honor and country.”