Photos and Story by
First Vice Commander Christopher Hanson, Post Information Officer
Regardless of rain or snow, wind or sunshine, one team of men is always willing to carry out their mission, their duty. They form together on short notice to ensure that their comrades receive what they were promised for their dedication to a grateful nation. These members band together and pick up where they left off when they left the service years ago – to work together as a team for a common goal. And it is clear that they have never lost their urge to complete any mission at hand.
The members of the Color Guard of Gilbert C. Grafton Post 2 of Fargo, North Dakota are those men. Comprised of over twenty total Legionnaires, the team has come together countless times for nearly six decades providing final military rites for men and women who have served our country. Their job is to provide a rifle team of seven to fire rifle volleys, perform Taps, and present the flag to the next of kin. They do it with time and time again with bittersweet pride.
While no one knows certain exactly when an organized and dedicated Color Guard or Honor Guard was established at Post 2, 60-year American Legion member Vern Useldinger can recall honors being a part of Color Guard activities and funerals as far back as 1948. But Useldinger is quite certain that these activities have been going on since the post was chartered nearly one hundred years ago. He believes that the group was called a “Ceremonial Committee” which was also associated with Post drill teams, bugles corps, and rifle teams.
Today’s Color Guard is a well-oiled machine that is organized and maintained by long-time team members and Legionnaires Will Hebert and Orlyn Stensgard. Hebert serves as the lead organizer for the group while Stensgard serves as the leader of the colors with the responsibility of presenting the flag to the next-of-kin. In addition to these two leaders, Sylvan Melroe serves as the Firing Team Leader charged with the job of leading the firing squad.
Stensgard is currently one of the longest serving members on the Color Guard. He estimates that he has served for over 50 years. A retired Army officer who served with the North Dakota Army National Guard’s famed 164th Infantry Regiment, says that he began participating in color guards while he was in the National Guard and that commitment continued with the American Legion even after he left the service.
The Color Guard now functions on a standard process when it comes to military funerals. Generally, the funeral home contacts the American Legion to be a part of a funeral if the family requests military rites. Over the past five years, in addition to the Color Guard being involved, the North Dakota Military Funeral Honors Team has also gotten involved by providing flag folders for these ceremonies. The relationship has grown into a mutual respect for each other’s organizations with the united goal of providing proper honors for veterans and their families.
The members of the group have varied stories regarding what motivated them to join the Color Guard. Several members wanted to continue giving the American Legion upon their retirement from their full-time jobs. Some enjoyed the friendships they had made through the organization. Everyone has their reasons.
Larry Lein, a 20-year member of the Color Guard and a 40-year member of the American Legion said, “The reason I joined the Color Guard was because back in the day, this was just something that you did. You wanted to give to the organization and this was one of the greatest ways of doing that.”
Sylvan Melroe agreed adding, “I wanted to be involved with this storied group. And in addition to that, I always liked the pomp and circumstance of military ceremonies and this gave me a chance to be a part of that.”
After visiting with several members, there is one thing these men have in common. When asked if any particular ceremony stood out amongst all of the funerals that they had done military rites at, they universally responded that the idea of military rites and funeral honors was that they should all be done the same. They should all be performed with the same amount of dignity and respect from mission to mission. And these team members take pride in their ability to do this.
“Every funeral is different,” said Bob Lechner, another longtime member of both the Color Guard and the Legion. “But nothing stands out because our job is to provide these rites in the same way for each and every veteran we serve.”
Dave Rice agreed with everyone as far as no one funeral standing out verses another, but did point out, “No one forgets those funerals where it’s 30 below outside in the winter!” Others certainly agreed with that- the elements make some funerals difficult, but nonetheless, the mission must go on with no regard to weather.
No honor guard would be complete without a bugler, of course. The color guard has several bugle and trumpet players who participate in funerals. Konrad Olson, a ten-year member of the team, serves as the primary trumpet player for the group performing Taps at funerals. Olson, along with fellow trumpet players Perry Kleven and Jeff DeVillers who provide this musical skill to the team, says that the performance of Taps, “provides a sense of closure to the ceremony” and “adds so much to the already solemn and dignified ceremony.” Indeed, the playing of Taps does provide the beautiful final touches to this special event, a final and fitting tribute to our veterans.
In addition to doing funerals and ceremonies, the Color Guard also presents colors at various community events to include sports events and community ceremonies. It is not uncommon to see the Color Guard present when military units arrive home at local airports. And they are often present at local parades, although the growing age of the members sometimes prevents them from marching too long of parades. Nonetheless, the members of the Color Guard want to keep doing as much as they physically can.
The Color Guard at Post 2 has served as one of the most busy and visible organizations within the American Legion. Their hard work and efforts sometimes seem unnoticed, but these are men that should be credited with the accolades that they deserve. They served our nation in the military many years ago and years later, continue to serve through a veteran service organization. Hopefully their example will be a motivator for young veterans and American Legion members and they will follow in their footsteps. There isn’t a better group of men out there to be exemplified.
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VALOR (Veteran Alliance Organization) was created to improve the campus climate for military and veteran students at North Dakota State University. The concept is to create a network of ADVOCATES made up of staff, faculty, and administrators at NDSU who are identified to our veteran students as people that they can go to for guidance and direction.
VALOR materials and training opportunities provide:
VALOR is sponsored by American Legion Post 400 and an Advisory Board that provides guidance and oversight.
Questions on the program can be directed to Adjutant Christopher Hanson or Past Commander Brad Aune, both who are Advisory Board members of VALOR.
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