There are easier things that Paul Madsen could do with his golden years than stand over graves in the snow and wind and heat and cold.
He could be golfing or sipping lemonade on the back porch or bouncing grandkids on his knee. He could be watching ballgames.
A man a few months shy of his 80th birthday is entitled, isn't he?
But several times each week, Madsen, flanked by other old soldiers just like him, conducts graveside rites for another fallen soldier, year-round, in all weather.
He recently performed a ceremony at a funeral in Farmington in a snowstorm so thick and windy that he couldn't see the other men.
There are healthier things a cancer survivor could be doing in the middle of winter.
Madsen keeps answering the call. When a military veteran dies, Madsen and the other former soldiers members of the Disabled American Veterans honor guard receive a call from a mortuary summoning them to perform their duty. They pack their rifles in a van, put on their dress blues, and travel to another funeral.
They've seen more cemeteries than a preacher.
They trudged out into the cold again last week and stood on wet, matted grass where the snow had been pushed back into dirty piles to make way for the funeral of a man who served in the Korean War. For an hour they stood there on their cold feet and went through their ceremony for the nth time.
"We're here today to pay our final tribute and respect and affection to our departed comrade," Madsen told the gathering, same as always. "As the years toll by the number of our veterans diminish. One by one they pass to the great beyond ..."
It is a practiced routine that they all know by rote. A military chaplain said a few words, and then the old soldiers picked up their rifles M-1 carbines from World War II and fired three volleys into the air. Then they solemnly folded the flag that draped the coffin and presented it to the fallen soldier's widow.
A bugler capped the ceremony with a rendition of "Taps" that was enough to make anyone's throat catch. The bugler is Peter Marcantonio, but everyone knows him as "Tuck." He's 93 years old. He was in retirement when DAV called. He told Madsen that playing his music for the dead has brought him back to life.
"It becomes rote, but we do experience emotion," he says.
The demand for the services of these gray, weathered old soldiers never slackens. Madsen and his honor guard perform this rite several times each week, more than 150 times a year. Other honor guards like this one, representing a number of similar organizations, perform the same ceremony around the state and the nation at a similar rate.
"One of our (DAV) members was said to have done over 4,000 funerals," says Madsen.
The soldiers from the Greatest Generation are disappearing. According to the Veterans Administration, World War II veterans, who are in their 80s, are dying at a rate of 1,100 per day. Living history the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy and faced the dug-in Japanese at Iwo Jima and froze at the Battle of the Bulge and dodged bombs at Pearl Harbor is vanishing.
"We've done as many as five (funerals) in one day," says Madsen. "We often do two if we can time it right."
Why does Madsen do what he does? "I guess just because of the love I have for my country and fellow servicemen," he says. "I don't know how else to explain it."
He pauses for a moment and then continues. "I was raised at a time when patriotism was emphasized in the schools. You don't hear it much anymore."
He quit Bingham High School during his senior year to join the Army. He served 22 years, much of it overseas in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Germany. Finally, he was granted a disability from the effects of Agent Orange, which was dropped on the jungles of Vietnam by U.S. planes.
The war didn't get him when he was in Vietnam, but he wonders if it might get him anyway. He has won one bout with cancer.
"Every time I perform one of those ceremonies," he says, "I wonder when I'll be next."When his time comes, he has a pretty good idea how the ceremony will go.
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to [email protected].