His Navy dress uniform is neatly pressed and pristine.
A sign of respect.
His voice strong but racked with emotion.
A sign of pride and sadness.
His words are filled with touching sorrow and powerful patriotism.
A sign of his love of God, country and the military.
With a frail breeze whispering amongst the trees and headstones of the Cortez Cemetery, Master Chief Linley Leonard and the American Legion No. 75 Honor Guard gave World War II veteran Russel Aulston a glorious military farewell.
Leonard’s fellow honor guard members, dressed in fatigues, white gloves and berets, their uniforms filled with medals, patches and emblems from their service decades ago, stand at respectful attention.
Leonard’s voice cracks with wayward emotion at times as he talks about his friend. In his 93 years, Aulston accomplished so much and lived a good life. His military heroism was finally recognized just a few months ago. A Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Prisoner of War medal arrived 66 years after he returned home from the war where he fought and was captured at the Battle of the Bulge.
Leonard sums up Aulston’s life with heart-felt reverence.
Master Chief Leonard pauses, taking in a deep breath as the emotions grow stronger.
“Russel Aulston was a good friend of mine. As a member of The Greatest Generation, he served his country with pride and heroism,” Leonard says to the gathering of family and friends.
Leonard takes up to three hours to prepare for the military graveside services. Researching the veteran’s life and constructing words that will capture the feelings of a thankful nation and a grateful family, Leonard takes no shortcuts when it comes to this special sendoff.
To call this a fitting farewell doesn’t do it justice.
“All military veterans have earned the right to be honored,” says Don Swank after Aulston’s service.
He’s been with the honor guard since 1985.
Leonard, dabs tears as he finishes shaking hands with mourners.
He’s emotionally spent. The burden of providing veterans with such a grand sendoff is exhausting for the 21-year retired Navy veteran.
“Russel was going to be my last veteran,” Leonard says, his emotions still fragile. “But I got a call that another veteran is in the hospital and at death’s door. And I was asked to do that service.”
Leonard can’t say no. It’s an obligation. It’s the kind of service the Cortez native hopes to have when it’s his time to be laid to rest in the Cortez Cemetery.
Another deep breath.
“So as long as the good Lord keeps filling my lungs with air and gives me my voice, I will continue to serve with this honor guard.”
This is not an average military service. It’s a well orchestrated, respectful tribute that gives a gratifying sense of closure to family and friends.
“We want people to take something home. We want it to be more than (the Honor Guard) just firing their weapons as part of a military salute,” Leonard says.
Every member of this honor guard is dedicated and committed to this calling.
For the past 13 years, Chuck Thompson has taken time out of his day, proudly pulling on his uniform, tugging on his beret and white gloves to help give a special farewell to a veteran.
“I feel that it’s my obligation to help do the services for our veterans,” he says in a humble low-key manner.
Like the other members, Thompson isn’t comfortable talking about the honor guard or themselves. They know that it’s not about them. It’s about their comrades who have passed.
It’s about giving them a fitting farewell.
It’s an emotional duty for all of them and gets even tougher when they know the veteran they are honoring. And that’s usually the case at the Cortez Cemetery.
EMOTION IS PART OF THE DAY
With a small chuckle, Leonard confesses that he’s grown more emotional and sensitive as the years drift past.
“I didn’t used to be,” the 59-year-old Leonard says. “I was pretty military, pretty straight up.”
For every service, the personal touch he provides gushes with passion. Always about the veteran, but also about God, county and the military.
Leonard, the military man, is now completely at ease with letting his emotions percolate to the surface. Actually, that’s the way it must be.
“I’ve discovered that in order to do this and do it properly, you have to let your heart be broken, and once it’s broken, you let your emotions go.”
Listening to the touching Aulston tribute and hearing his voice quiver with sorrow, it’s apparent Master Chief Leonard’s heart is breaking.
When the honor guard gathers around Aulston’s flag-draped casket, the folding ceremony begins.
It’s powerful and poignant.
With each fold, Swank gives the flag a firm creasing stroke with his right hand. With every fold, Leonard recites what each fold means.
One of the most heart wrenching, solemn parts of the military service is presenting the flag to the family.
As he kneels at the feet of Lolita, Russel’s wife of 65 years, Leonard hands her the perfectly folded flag, then leans in close and whispers his condolences.
GOD, COUNTRY AND THE MILITARY
Leonard embraces everything about the service and its symbolism.
He believes strongly — passionately — in God, country and the military, and unabashedly lets everyone know it.
“I’ll keep praising the Lord and praising these people (veterans) for as long as I’m allowed to,” he says.
Reciting the meanings of the 13 folds is profoundly special to Leonard. The folds heavily recognize religion, patriotism, the armed forces and the United States of America.
Then he reveals which fold is the most special. It’s No. 6.
“The Pledge of Allegiance,” Leonard says firmly. “We don’t say it enough; we don’t say it often enough and we don’t say it with heart-felt feeling.”
As he reads the definitions during the ceremony, Leonard’s voice is crisp and loud: “The sixth fold is for where our hearts lie. It is with our heart that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The service concludes with the rifle salute, the playing of taps and a touching good-bye.
As the honor guard aim their rifles upward for the military salute, the echoes from three blasts drift away on the gentle eastern breeze.
“PRESENT ARMS!” Thompson orders.
The six men slap the rifles into their left palms and stand eerily motionless as a man behind them, dressed in a Colorado State Trooper uniform, brings a trumpet to his lips.
It’s Darrel Aulston, and as a tribute to his grandfather, the military hero, Darrel plays taps. The powerful rendition leaves family members in tears and hugs.
Darrel drops his head and wipes his own tears as he finishes.
After the ceremony, he personally thanks every member of the honor guard for giving his grandpa such a special farewell.
“Words can’t express it,” he says about the moving ceremony. “It’s what my grandpa would have wanted. He was proud of his service. He was proud to be a veteran.”
For Leonard, he’s emotionally drained but he will return to his sales job at Steve Keetch Motors in the afternoon.
He’s filled with satisfaction for providing a special military service to another veteran.
He knows that Russel Aulston won’t be his last veteran; nor will the veteran at death’s door.
As mourners take turns thanking him, Leonard graciously shakes hands and accepts their words. This is when Leonard knows that he can’t walk away from this duty.
“That’s when I say I can’t quit. It gives me strength to take the next call.”
He glances at his friend’s casket as it’s prepared to be lowered into the ground.
“Giving back through this service is what I want to do,” he says with a convincing nod.
This military service, like them all, finishes the same special way.
Following the rifle salute, the honor guard again gather and snap salutes at the edge of Russel’s casket.
They announce in unison.
A splendid, respectful, fitting and memorable farewell indeed.