Old soldiers don't seem to have a chance to fade away anymore.
By the end of Memorial Day Monday, the Marine Corps League will have fired gun salutes and played taps at five separate ceremonies in the Billings area. The heat was high enough and speeches long enough that at one ceremony, a veteran collapsed while standing at attention and needed to be hospitalized.
The 83-year-old veteran was part of a Marine honor guard that had been to two ceremonies before attending Billings' main event at Mountview Cemetery at 10:45 a.m. The veteran collapsed and appeared to hit his head on a tombstone during a reading of the Gettysburg Address. The honor guard members had been standing in the sun through the lengthy program of speeches.
While paramedics tended to the fallen veteran lying in the grass, his comrades stood stoically and fired their salute on cue. The man was taken by ambulance to a local hospital.
The work of the local military honor guards is increasingly busy, said Burt Gigoux, a bugler and commandant of the Eugene Sara Detachment of the Marine Corps League. In a normal week, the group sends an honor guard to at least one funeral. The American Legion Honor Guard averages between two and three local funerals per week.
An estimated 1,000 World War II veterans die each day across the country. Many are members of honor guards, said Ron Sims, president of the Billings chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Succeeding generations of veterans are ready to take over the reins to ensure that all old soldiers will receive a proper burial, Sims said.
"We're waiting in the wings," he said.
Honoring veterans, fallen and living, is a responsibility of all Americans, said John Pierson, a Vietnam veteran and guest speaker at Monday's ceremony in Billings.
"To each and all who served, thank you for your service and thank you for your sacrifice," Pierson told the audience of about 300 at Mountview Cemetery. "America is the good that stands before the face of evil in the world today."
Tammy Muri, a Billings resident, attended the ceremony with her son, Wade. Muri said she attends Memorial Day ceremonies each year to honor her brother's service in the Marines and to instill in her son a respect for veterans. She said she was disappointed to see so few other children Monday.
"You're going to end up with people not realizing what our veterans have done," she said. "They'll lose perspective."