By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Rich Niebrugge and Vernon Koester have been on a tour of duty as veterans for 25 years.
The two members of Effingham American Legion Post 120 regularly fall in line with the honor guard squads at military funerals or ceremonies on Veterans Day, Memorial Day or other times when their services are requested. They are among dozens of veterans volunteering to shoulder rifles.
But on Saturday morning, they were on the firing line for firing honor volleys near the close of the annual Veterans Day ceremony by the Effingham Veterans Memorial on the old courthouse square. Other honor guard volunteers were holding flags or ceremonial rifles.
“We try to use the same guys a lot of times so we work together well. Of course, some of that depends on the guy giving the orders,” said Niebrugge, an Army National Guard veteran and retired Effingham city employee.
Bill Copple, an Army veteran from the Vietnam War, serves regularly as sergeant of arms for different honor guard services that includes a list of about three dozen local veterans. Copple barks out the orders to the riflemen loud and clear, starting with “Attention!” then “Present Arms!” followed by “Rifles Ready!” “Aim!” and “Fire!”
“I do have a loud and clear voice,” Copple said. “That’s why they get me to do it. I like doing it because I consider it an honor that they ask me,” Copple said.
Koester, who served with the Third Armored Division in Europe four decades ago during the Cold War, likes it when the honor volley sounds like one shot instead of several separate ones. That shows the squad is truly in sync on the commands.
The honor volley through tradition comes before the playing of “Taps,” a bugle call that goes back to the Civil War. After placing their rifles in the “present arms” position, the riflemen stand silent as the mournful tune is played. Their thoughts might go back to experiences during their military service.
“I think of a few guys we lost in training over in Germany. A jet hit an APC (armored personnel carrier) that day. I was a driver for the captain and we were the first ones on the scene,” Koester recalled.
“That’s why we do this. It’s for those who didn’t make it back,” Niebrugge said.
When they fire the blank rounds from their converted M-1 carbines, some children among the spectators react in different ways, Niebrugge said. The crack of even blanks can be hard on young ears. Some parents cup the ears of children during the volleys
“When we fire our guns, the babies will start crying,” Niebrugge said.
There are tears shed by adults during the military funerals, which can number in the dozens during any given year. In addition to the presentation of an American flag that draped the casket, the honor squad will present an empty brass cartridge from a round fired during the funeral. It is a token of remembrance for the family of the deceased veteran.
During his brief remarks, Naval Lt. Commander J.R. Elder talked of the importance of honoring all veterans who have “borne the cost” for freedom and the fight against tyranny.
“Today, it is their time to stand tall,” Elder said. “We need to educate future generations on the accomplishments, and the needs of our veterans.”
As he spoke those words, he was flanked by young children and teenagers, including members of the St. Anthony High School band, present during the ceremony, organized by Effingham Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1769, on a sunny but cold Veterans Day morning.
Earlier that morning, veterans and members of the Altamont community gathered for a fundraiser breakfast in the American Legion Post 512 building in the center of the town’s business district. They swapped stories and memories of their times in the military, while enjoying pancakes, sausage and eggs at long tables.
Koester as a Vietnam War era veteran remembers when many young people did not appreciate the sacrifices of military personnel. He is glad that recent events, ranging from 9/11 to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have helped change attitudes.
“It’s good to see more respect shown for younger veterans than it was years ago,” Koester said.