Honor Guard counts service a privilege
At least 400 times over the past decade, John Williams has dressed for a funeral.
Most of the people he turned out to pay respects for he didn't know personally, but that didn't matter to Williams. The only thing that did matter was that those he honored had all devoted themselves at one time or another to serving the nation in the armed forces.
Others who, like Williams, are members of the Stephens County Honor Guard, see it the same way. They believe that whenever they're called on to provide military honors at a fellow veteran's funeral, it's their obligation to be there.
A Vietnam veteran who served in the Air Mobile Cavalry from 1966 to 1968, Williams, 72, describes his service in the Honor Guard simply as a continuation of a commitment he made years ago, one that can't be broken.
"I saw what it was like to lose your comrades," he said, "people close to you, that you count on and they count on you. That experience of what we went through just creates a bond. We call each other brother."
That bond, he added, extends beyond just the veterans he served with in Vietnam. He feels the same respect and loyalty to all who have served, in combat, in non-combat roles and in other eras, from World War II and earlier through to the nation's present conflicts.
Williams was among longtime members recognized recently at a 10th Organizational Anniversary banquet held for the Stephens County Honor Guard in Duncan. Dan Mitchell, who has been commander of the Honor Guard for all of its 10 years, said all of its members hold words like commitment, loyalty and integrity dear to their hearts.
The Guard was formed, Mitchell said, in the wake of the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when the military found itself stretched and unable to provide robust military honors at funerals for veterans.
"I experienced that first-hand," he said. "After my father passed away they sent two young men, but that just was not the level of respect and honor that I thought was necessary for veterans."
At around that same time, Mike Blades, another Vietnam-era veteran, had been attending funerals on his own in uniform, if requested by a family, out of his own sense of commitment to fellow veterans. When he read in the local newspaper that Mitchell was interested in getting an honor guard organized, he joined without hesitation.
Guard members have since provided military honors at funerals for veterans buried not only in Stephens County, but in Lawton, Walters, Rush Springs, Oklahoma City and as far away as Nash, just south of the Oklahoma-Kansas border. There are about 25 on the roll, Mitchell said, with 12-14 active. They dress in sharp black pants with gold stripes, starched white military-style shirts with gold bibs and gold cords representing the honor guard. They also wear military ribbons earned in service, patches denoting military branches, and polished boots. At funerals, they arrive before family members and friends of the deceased and present in formation carrying flags of the military branches.