George Anthos spent just three years in the Army, from 1955 to 1957, before returning home to Illinois and pursuing a profession as a hair dresser.
But at age 83, he puts on a military-style uniform every Tuesday and reports to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Joliet.
Since 2003, he has been a part of its Memorial Squad — men and women who provide military honors for veterans buried there.
“We have a code in the military of ‘no man left behind,'” he said. “It’s my way of bringing veterans home for the last time.”
About three dozen people accompany veterans on their last journey. They present the colors, play taps, fire 21-shot salutes and present U.S. flags to survivors.
The cemetery, which is the only active national one in the Chicago area, opened in 1999 on the grounds of the former Joliet Arsenal. More than 50,000 veterans, their spouses and certain other relatives are buried there, in graves or columbaria. The federal government pays for the burial, the marker and the burial flag.
Anthos said Mondays and Fridays are typically the busiest days. The rites take place at three committal shelters, not the grave sites.
Anthos used to be one of the riflemen. Now, he folds the U.S. flag and presents it to the survivors. The squads also present three spent shells, in plastic sleeves, to represent the three volleys.
There’s a World War II veteran in the ranks, who is in his 90s. They do their jobs in all types of weather.
“I’m going to try to do it as long as I can,” said Anthos, a former resident of Downers Grove and Woodridge.
One of the younger members of a Tuesday squad is Bruce “Ty” Keller, 46, of Braidwood. He was a heavy machine-gunner in the Marine Corps from 1990 to 1993, discharged as a lance corporal E3.
Keller’s road to the squad was winding. He has post-traumatic stress disorder but says he “got it together” in 2012. He has become a chaplain, is involved in K9s for Veterans and works with a veterans’ outreach center. The honor guard “just seemed like it was a good fit,” he said.
And he has found a brotherhood similar to when he was in the military. “It was a way to give back, to honor the men and women who fought for our freedom long before we did,” Keller said.
Larry Richards, 76, of New Lenox kind of stumbled into it. His brother, also a veteran, was being buried, and there was no bugler to play taps. Richards, who played with the 5th Army Band during his stint from 1962 to 1965, stepped up.
“I’ve been bugling ever since,” he said.
He is now a member of Buglers Across America.
Many of the veterans being buried served during the Vietnam and Korean War eras, Anthos said. But they are seeing more funerals for younger people, especially those who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or drug addiction or who took their own lives, Keller said.
Civilians serve, too. Steve Joutras, 65, of New Lenox and Mark Menig, 63, of Minooka said they do it to honor veterans, including their relatives who served.
“I felt that I needed to give back,” Joutras said.
Sometimes, it is just them, a funeral director and a cemetery administrator at the rite.
“It is sad to see these one-car, two-car, no-car services,” Richards said.
At other times, people turn out in droves to honor veterans, even ones they didn’t know.
Last year, a World War II veteran killed at Pearl Harbor was moved from the national cemetery in Hawaii to Abraham Lincoln. Hundreds of people attended that ceremony, Menig said. Attendance also was good at the recent quarterly ceremony where indigent veterans, with no relatives, were committed.
“The more people who show up for the service the better,” Menig said.
And that explains why Anthos — who will be buried there himself — carries on.
“Because I am a veteran and I feel it is an obligation to take care of my friends … to give them their last honors before they are laid to rest,” he said.
by Susan Sarkauskas, Daily Herald