MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The volunteer rifle squad at Fort Snelling National Cemetery has provided military honors at almost 60,000 burials. But now it's in danger of losing its guns because the Army wants them back.
The Army wants to replace the honor guard's 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles, a model that predated World War I, with a somewhat more modern weapon, the World War II vintage M-1 Garand semiautomatic.
But the volunteers with the Fort Snelling squad hope to stick to their old guns. U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., a retired Marine who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote to Army Secretary John McHugh last Friday asking the service to reconsider. On Wednesday, he said the Army will look into the matter.
Vietnam-era machine gunner John Sobaski, of Inver Grove Heights, told Minnesota Public Radio (http://bit.ly/vUpsud ) the Springfield's mechanism is part of the weapon's allure.
"I like the action that it makes, the sound that it makes," he said. "It sounds a little more traditional."
Bob Nelson, a Vietnam vet who commands the squad, which formed in 1979, said the Springfield's shots have a distinct ring as well.
"They sound the best. M-1's, they have a mellower sound. And we think it's really a nice tribute to our veterans that we are having the honors for that they go out in style and class," Nelson said.
The Garand is also heavier, with a tricky reloading mechanism that could spell potential trouble for the volunteers, many of whom are in their 70s, 80s and even 90s. Howard Tellin, the armorer and bugler for the squad, calls it "The M1 thumb."
"If you don't watch it, you're going to have the prettiest black-and-blue thumb you've ever seen. It hurts for about a week," Tellin said.
The Army wants the Springfields back under a new policy that also limits the squad to 15 rifles, down from 50 that are now shared among the five details working different days. Combined, the details serve an average of 45 to 50 burials a week.
The reason for the changes remains unclear, at least to the rifle squad members who blame the Pentagon bureaucracy. A Pentagon spokesman contacted by the Star Tribune (http://bit.ly/uYRnTx ) said he did not have a ready answer.
"We can't get a truthful statement out of anyone," Nelson said. "I don't know anyone who really knows why they want to take them away."
On Wednesday, Kline announced the Army would launch an inquiry. In addition, an aide said Kline intends to introduce legislation early next year to ensure the squad can keep its Springfields.
Kline said the issue is largely about recognizing the squad's sacrifices for their fellow soldiers, sailors and Marines.
"As you talk to them you realize they're all guys in their 70s and 80s," he said. "They're out there in the winter when it's below zero. They're out there all the time."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.