As Grady Locklear was laid to rest, six members of the Robeson County Honor Guard snapped their rifles to their shoulders and fired three shots into the air in unison as Eddie Matchett quickly and precisely gave commands.
The shots rang out across the gray sky and echoed in the distance. The bugler played taps and two other members of the honor guard folded the flag and spoke carefully chosen words as one handed it to the family.
“Every service I’ve ever been in, I get weak in my knees,” said Joseph Locklear, an honor guard member who typically folds the flag.
It’s a sentiment echoed throughout the ranks of the honor guard, a volunteer organization that provides military funeral rites to veterans. The local group, chartered in 1995, is made up of a mixture of active duty and retired military personnel from all branches of service that performs military funerals in Robeson County and occasionally in nearby counties.
Career military officers are afforded a full compliment of active duty servicemen for their funerals. But people who served a short stint in the military may be honored with a two-man complement at their funeral, or they may not, depending on the availability of an active duty team in the area, said Matchett, the executive officer of the honor guard.
“Back when we got involved, the military didn’t do funerals for veterans,” Matchett said. “Now a vet is only entitled to a two- or three-man detail that folds the flag, gives the flag to the family and plays taps.”
Matchett and Stella Johnson, the commander of the honor guard, keep a roster of about 30 people. They plan and execute military funerals when service members pass on. When they find out about a veteran who has died, they start calling members to see who is available.
Because the organization is made up of volunteers, sometimes they don’t have enough people for a full military funeral. At Locklear’s funeral, there were only enough to shoot six guns at a time for the 21-gun salute, with two people to fold the flag, one to command and one to play the bugle, a number that Matchett says the regulations allow.
“We do it rain, sleet or shine,” Matchett said. “We’re like the bread man, we got to go.”
The members of the honor guard arrive 30 minutes before the funeral party to practice. The guard’s members are experienced, but they still practice before each funeral because of their high standards.
The flag folding is one area where they pay particular attention. Many families keep the flags that they are given funerals as a memorial. A flag is supposed to be folded into a triangle with only the stars and stripes showing. Matchett recalled an instance when the flag was folded at the funeral, but a thumb’s width of red was showing, meaning the flag was folded incorrectly.
“If we fold the flag and it’s not perfect, we’ll still present it to the family,” Matchett said. “But after the funeral we’ll take it back and fold it right.”
The group’s dress code is formal and impeccable — dress uniforms, a white belt and white gloves. The uniforms are expensive, especially to honor guard members who left the service years ago, costing as much as $350.
“We want to be as professional as they were when they were serving,” Johnson said.
But, they’re not professional honor guards. Many have other responsibilities, including work, that can make it difficult to attend some funerals, especially those that require travel outside Robeson County.
They also have to buy ammunition for the 21-gun salute and they’ve bought a speaker that fits in the end of the bugle that plays taps when a bugulist isn’t available. The speaker makes it look like the person holding the bugle is playing.
Their service is performed at no charge the family of the deceased vet. They defray some of their expenses with a pancake breakfast they put on every year and with private donations.
To ask the Robeson County Honor Guard to attend a funeral or for information about joining, call Eddie Matchett at (910) 843-5040.