Aging of the Guard: Color Guards in southwest ND consist of mostly retired veterans

BELFIELD — Larry Johnson points to a grouping of six 4-by-6-inch photographs taped to a wall of a room in the Belfield American Legion Hall.

The photos show the Belfield Legion Color Guard in formation at different funerals.

After a moment, Johnson looks at fellow Legion and Color Guard member Larry Ewoniuk and says, “a lot of those guys are gone now.”

It’s the same story everywhere in southwest North Dakota, where aging veterans organizations mean fewer young members — especially those willing and able to be involved in activities such as Color Guard for funerals and holiday services.

Eleven members of the Belfield Color Guard showed up for Monday’s Memorial Day services. “A perfect number,” Johnson said. There was a common theme amongst the group though.

Almost all are retired. The two youngest members there Monday were 50 and 33 years old.

“Are any of these people coming after us, are they going to be there for us?” Johnson asked. “We don’t know.”

Color Guards in southwest North Dakota are typically run by the American Legion. The group’s duties are to advance and retire the colors, perform Taps, and often present American flags to family members at funerals.

All Legion Color Guards consist of veterans who served in a branch of the military during a time of war. But, as Vietnam War-era veterans age, there are concerns that a looming struggle to get members will become an enduring challenge.

Art Wanner, who organizes the Dickinson (N.D.) Legion Color Guard, said he’s fortunate enough to have a “good core group” that turns out 10 to 14 members for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and funeral services.

“The fellas who start doing it, they don’t want to give it up,” Wanner said. “They’re dedicated and the folks we do it for, they appreciate it and that’s what it’s all about. But it’s hard. It’s hard to find the people.”

Recruiting the next group of veterans may require some waiting.

Wanner and other Color Guard leaders in southwest North Dakota said they try to get non-participating veterans involved in the services with little success.

Two of the biggest challenges is convincing potential Color Guard members that they don’t have to be at every funeral or holiday service, and getting their employers to allow them more freedom to take off work for those services.

“The biggest thing that would help us is if the employers pushed it,” Wanner said. “They have those individuals working for them. If they allowed them a little bit of flexibility to give them some time off to perform that service as a patriotic thing to do, that would be the key. A lot of those employers are hesitant to give them that time off.”

Jessica Clifton, the veterans service officer for Stark, Billings, Dunn and Hettinger counties, said it’s a struggle for younger veterans to become involved in organizations such as the Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars because of the demand placed on them at home.

“They’re just too busy working and raising families,” she said. “They don’t have the time to join veterans organizations and Color Guard.”

Clifton, who is retired Air Force and has young children at home, said she would enjoy doing more with veterans organizations, but sees that as a part of her future.

Billy Hanson, the 84-year-old Legion commander in New England, said he speaks to younger veterans he knows, sends them letters and has even gone as far as having the club pay their yearly dues in an effort to get them more involved.

“We’ve got several of them here that were in different wars,” Hanson said of his local veterans. “They just don’t want to get involved.”

Hanson said, so far, his club has been lucky. They still get enough people together to perform Color Guard duties. Seven is the average number, he said.

“They’re all in their 60s or 70s that are all participating in the Color Guard,” Hanson said.

Kevin Carvell, Mott’s Legion commander, said about six months ago he convinced another veteran, a recent retiree, to join the club’s Color Guard. But that man came in on the heels of the group losing one member to health problems. Another, an 88-year-old World War II veteran, participated in Color Guard for the final time Monday.

“We’re maintaining,” Carvell said.

Wanner said while the Dickinson Color Guard gets a new member every so often, there’s a nearly universal fear of what they’re committing to. He said some are hesitant to join either because of the time commitment, or a fear they’ll be unable to properly carry out the duties.

“The older folks who have been away from the military for a while, they’re scared to try it,” Wanner said. “They don’t know if they can do it.”

Increasing age hasn’t stopped the Belfield Color Guard.

Minutes before the town’s Memorial Day services — and with a thunderstorm looming to the west — Johnson led seven riflemen, two flaggers and a bugler on a three-block march from the Legion Hall to the Belfield Theatre.

Along the way, the few people on the streets — including three young boys — stopped, removed their hats and paid respect to both the men and the American flag they were marching behind.

“I’m proud of my guys,” Johnson said.