Poise, professional, polished, the American Legion No. 75 Honor Guard is a proud group.
Standing at attention, their posture radiated respect. Steely gazes, chins up, all with a rigid stance — a perfect illustration of military pride and respect.
In neatly pressed fatigues, spit-shined combat boots, their military chaplain in his pristine white Navy dress uniform, six men came to Blanding, Utah on a mission.
The Cortez Honor Guard drove 86 miles to honor a man who they never met. A man who paid the ultimate price to protect our freedom. A man who was their comrade in arms.
Petty Officer First Class Jason Workman, 32, was killed in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan on Aug. 6. On this day, he would receive a military hero's farewell.
Dan McCuistion, 61, is an Army veteran. He doesn't like talking about his days in Vietnam. Too many bad memories.
“I still have some difficult memories of that time. It wasn't all bad. I just don't like to talk about it,” McCuistion says two months after Workman's service.
Regardless of the bad memories and being part of a war that was despised by many on the homefront, McCuistion is proud of his service.
“I felt shunned when I got back. It took 40 years but it's an honor to finally to be recognized for my service. I'm very proud if it,” he says with a humble nod.
It's that pride and respect for the military and his fellow veterans that pushed McCuistion to reshape the local honor guard when he moved to Cortez back in 1983.
It was far from the professional unit that operates today.
McCuistion said there were no uniforms. Members showed up in jeans, flannel shirts, irrigation boots, and some even came to funeral services drunk, he says.
Not a sign of respect for a veteran who earned a respectful farewell because of their military service.
PRIDE AND DUTY
Don Swank, 64, is a U.S. Navy veteran who joined the honor guard in 1985. When he and McCuistion teamed up, the unit began to take shape.
“It's always been an honor. It's the final farewell to a veteran who served his country,” Swank says, then pauses. “It's what they've earned.”
Swank was also frustrated with the non-professional makeup of the honor guard when he joined. It was time for a change.
“When I came here, the guard was adequate but there was no organization, there was no uniform.”
While in Vietnam, Swank's body was mangled in an attack that ended his military career. His twin brother was also killed in Vietnam.
There's a tone rich with pride and respect when he speaks of the military and the Cortez Honor Guard.
“My belief is that you have to have pride to function properly and I think we instilled that pride,” Swank says firmly.
He pauses and reflects for a moment. Then gives what could and maybe is the perfect mission statement for why they conduct the military honors at funeral services.
“It's based on pride and a sense of duty,” he says. “All veterans have earned the right to be honored.”
August 21 was a long day for the Cortez Guard. In the morning, they honored Navy veteran Roger Hazlewood at his Cortez service. Then they packed their trailer and traveled the 86 miles to be part of the Workman service.
It wasn't a burden, rather it was a respectful obligation. It was a duty for this dedicated group.
“It's been one of my primary goals to see that these veterans are honored,” Swank says.
The service for Workman, who was a member of the Elite Navy SEALs Six team, was private. The family's statement explained why.
“It was Jason's request that we all honor his wish to remain a quiet professional, one who never advertised what he did as a SEAL, nor sought recognition for his actions.”
That appears to be the same sentiment the Cortez Honor Guard embraces. They serve this calling for one reason and one reason only.
To respect and honor veterans in their final farewell.
“These are people who served their country and have put their lives on the line. They deserve respect,” Swank says as the Guard prepared for the Blanding ceremony.
The Cortez Guard is made up of 21 veterans from ages 21 to 85. Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and the National Guard members, who served the United States and someday, they too will be honored with military services. Rifle shots will echo and taps will be played at their final farewell.
A PROFESSIONal GUARD
For McCuistion, who was born and raised in the Denver area, the memories from Vietnam and the era still offer a level of torment. He even admits that he put his military past in the shadows when he first came home.
“When I got out you didn't want to be a vet. You hid that from people,” he says.
As a member of the Cortez Honor Guard for the past 28 years, McCuistion exudes veteran pride in every action. Standing at attention, snapping a right-hand salute, folding the U.S. flag, squeezing the trigger for the rifle salute and accepting thanks from a grateful family after a funeral service, McCuistion serves the unit with pride. Just like he did when he was in the Army.
McCuistion and Swank teamed up to take the unit from a ragtag bunch to a professional, polished group of veterans that emanates pride, respect and a sense of duty.
“It's an honor to give the last rites to a veteran,” McCuistion says.
Back in Cortez on Oct. 21, the Honor Guard provides a stirring service honoring 93-year-old World War II veteran Russel Aulston.
It's crisp and professional, a stunning demonstration of military pride and precision. Uniforms neat and pressed. Stern, respectful expressions. As they swarm around the casket to conduct the emotional flag folding ceremony, the mourners are mesmerized by the precise, deliberate and solemn execution of this majestic ritual. The flag is then handed to Master Chief Linley Leonard who compassionately presents it to Russel's widow Lolita.
The remaining Honor Guard stands at respectful attention.
As the service concludes, the Honor Guard attentively combs the grass to retrieve their spent shell casings from the rifle salute.
Another respectful and professional service has concluded.
Looking back at the last 28 years, McCuistion smiles and shifts his eyes downward. He has a difficult time expressing what it means to be part of the Honor Guard and helping it become the professional unit it is today.
“I'm very proud. It means a lot to us,” he says. “It's always an honor to be called upon.”
Then he raises his chin and says, “We've never refused a funeral.”
It took 40 years for McCuistion to feel accepted after returning home from Vietnam. Now, 28 years serving with the Cortez Honor Guard, he's again found the pride and satisfaction that comes with serving his country.