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Legion, VFW color guards merge into new Detroit Lakes unit

For more than 70 years, the Detroit Lakes American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have each maintained a separate Color Guard, charged with providing military honors to deceased military veterans as well as presenting "the colors" (i.e., the American flag) at various ceremonies and celebrations, and marching in area parades.

But on April 27, that tradition of maintaining separate entities came to an end, as a total of 24 members of both color guards voted to merge into one, incorporated under the name Lake Region Veterans Color Guard.

"We had several preliminary meetings," said color guard member Dave Coalwell. The primary impetus for joining forces was a matter of numbers: with more members, the organization could make sure that every military funeral had, at minimum, seven Color Guard members to perform the rites.

"Without that (seven-member minimum), we're not serving our veterans and their families as well as we want to," Coalwell explained.

"Our base is dwindling," he said, adding that besides an aging membership, a large number of the Color Guard's more active young members are currently serving their country in Iraq. "I have 34 active members on the roster right now, but I expect that to grow (when those members serving in Iraq come back to the U.S.)."

In 2000, the U.S. Congress made it law that all eligible veterans in the U.S. were entitled to receive full military rites at their funeral, if it is the family's wish that they do so.

"It's still the family's choice, but it's rare when we don't get a call," said Dave Nelson, another Color Guard member who moved to the lakes area in 1995.

In the past couple of years, Nelson said, the American Legion Color Guard has provided rites at anywhere between 24-27 funerals a year, Nelson said -- but "that's increasing," Coalwell added.

"I've done close to 1,000 funerals in 25 years," said Coalwell. "Sometimes, we've had as many as three funerals in one day."

When those funerals are located in disparate parts of the county, or even outside the county, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for the same Color Guard members to be at all of them.

"You can't go from (a funeral in) Ponsford to Frazee and set up (for the next funeral) in 25 minutes," Coalwell said. "You just can't get it done."

There are 99 cemeteries in Becker County, according to Coalwell -- "and we've been to most of them."

Sometimes, Nelson said, the Color Guard is even asked to provide rites for a funeral in the Twin Cities, or farther.

"Whenever we're wanted, we've got to go," explained Ray Kunz, another long-time color guard member.

Because many funeral services are held during the day, when some Color Guard members are working and unable to attend, "we rely a lot on our older members," Nelson added -- some of whom occasionally have difficulty dealing with extreme weather conditions, for health reasons.

Coalwell recalled one funeral a few years ago where the military rites at the cemetery took place in 37-below temperatures -- and "eight of the 10 Color Guard members at the funeral were World War II veterans."

While their older members are invaluable, and do a wonderful job, Nelson added, they should not be asked to put their health at risk in order to do so.

But military rites for deceased veterans are only part of the picture. The color guards are also asked to participate in a lot of area parades, such as Monday's Memorial Day Parade in Detroit Lakes, and to "present the colors" at a variety of special occasions such as graduation ceremonies, Veteran's Day, Flag Day and Memorial Day programs, the annual Becker County Relay for Life, and even the occasional cemetery dedication.

"The demand on these two organizations has been extremely high," Coalwell said. "To be as professional as we can possibly be, we felt it was best for us to be a combined organization."

Though there are some details still to be worked out, such as new uniforms, Coalwell and Nelson said the organization should be fully merged by the end of the year.

But the Lake Region Veterans Color Guard is not open to American Legion and VFW members only -- it's open to any Armed Forces veteran, including those who belong to the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), AmVETS, or no other organization at all.

This reflects the new organization's underlying purpose, which is "to foster a veteran community that will encompass all generations, without the inhibitions created by a generation gap," Coalwell said.

"We want (the returning veterans) to feel good when they come home (from Iraq)," Kunz added.

What the Lakes Area Veterans Color Guard members are hoping is that this combined organization will provide a catalyst for building that veteran community, and fostering camaraderie between young and old members alike.

"We're already seeing some of that develop," Coalwell added.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454