| By Rita Howell
Bringing a final honor to those who have worn the uniform of their country, and giving comfort to their families, members of the Mississippi National Guard’s military funeral honors detail perform the ritual folding of the flag and the solemn sounding of "Taps" at funeral services all over the state.
"It’s a free service," explained Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Plunk of Clarksdale, a member of the team that serves the Delta area, including Panola County.
"Lots of people don’t know about it. The family has to request it. The funeral homes know how to get in contact with us."
Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Matthews of Crowder also serves on the team.
A retired school superintendent for Quitman County, he has served in the National Guard for 29 years and is attached to the 223rd Combat Engineers headquarters in West Point. He spent a year in Iraq, returning in March, 2004.
In February of this year he volunteered for the funeral detail, one of six team members. Since then he’s probably helped with 80 funerals already.
"Lately we’ve been averaging about five funerals a week," Matthews said. "Once we did two in one day."
They do their best to comply with the wishes of the family.
"One time we set up and fired the weapons (for a 21-gun salute) on the parking lot of Wells Funeral Home. They opened the doors so the people could hear."
Last week the team was on duty in Batesville Magnolia Cemetery for the burial of retired local barber and World War II veteran Leo Franklin.
Franklin’s daughter Lisa Barber observed that her dad "left in honor and dignity," thanks to the National Guard team’s service.
Being a member of the funeral detail is a "coveted position," Matthews said.
"There’s a great sense of pride and honor in doing this."
The families, he said, are most appreciative.
With the aging population of World War II and Korean veterans, the team is being called on more frequently.
Last year across the state the National Guard provided military honors for 600 funerals, according to Elroy Winding, Mississippi state funeral coordinator for the program. This year they’ve already served at 700.
The service is available for anyone who has been in the military.
A funeral with full military honors, including a 21-gun salute, is provided for Medal of Honor winners, ex-POWs and disabled veterans, though the full service can be arranged for others if time allows.
For more information, contact Elroy Winding at 601-313-6441.