SARATOGA, N.Y. -- It's chilly, a bit damp. And 76-year-old Navy veteran Bud Taylor is standing stock still in the soldiers' cemetery again, saluting the approaching hearse with a white-gloved hand.
These are final honors for a fellow veteran who served during World War II. The members of Taylor's honor guard squad -- mostly white-haired retirees -- fire three volleys into the air, play taps and fold the flag on the coffin. Taylor presents the flag to the widow with the words he's repeated hundreds of times:
"This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as a token of our appreciation ..."
An average of 1,700 veterans die each day, with World War II-era veterans accounting for more than half that number, according to federal estimates. At a minimum, eligible veterans are due a flag presentation and taps from military representatives.
Around the nation, services are performed by military personnel, veterans' groups or a mix. Saratoga is among 11 national cemeteries out of 120 with its own volunteer honor guard, according to the Veterans Administration.
It can be tough on old bones. Ceremonies can last 20 minutes and guards stand still throughout. Three or more services a day are common. Guards work when the summer sun bakes their shiny black shoes, when the winter wind whips over the low hills, and when it's so cold the bugler has to lollipop his mouthpiece so he can play.
"Very difficult," says 65-year-old Frank Sabatino. "Some of the priests are very long. Very difficult. Especially at our age."
Taylor's squad, one of six at the cemetery, works on Fridays. Eleven guards show up most days, including a rifle team, three guard members to fold the flag and a bugler.
Taylor arrives at their cemetery office first to make coffee, load the M1 rifles with blanks and check the service schedule. The rest file in and adjust their uniforms -- yellow canoe cap, yellow ascot, black military sweater and black slacks. Gloves and belts are white.
Services are held at one of two stone shelters by the rows of graves. Taylor and three others stay inside. The firing squad stands outside. At the shouted command of "Fire!" they shoot three volleys.
The Saratoga National Guard Honor Guard Association has about 100 active members. All were or are in the military, which is a requirement. Four are women, including a 29-year-old Army reservist who is the group's youngest, says Commander William Potts.
The six squads handle about 700 to 1,000 services a year.
Harry Cronin, 76, will read the obituaries -- "You get to my age, that's what you do every day," he says -- and work additional ceremonies if he reads about someone he knows coming through.
Often, squad members don't know who they're honoring -- just that a veteran is being buried. All the same, the grief of strangers can tug at their hearts.
"Trying to give a flag to a sobbing widow was difficult over the years," Taylor says. "Over time, you become accustomed to it. You still feel sad for them."
Then there are those ceremonies where the honor guard outnumbers the mourners.
"When I really feel good is when and there are only two or three people," Eugene Raucci says. "He doesn't have anybody, but he's got us guys."
Some say they will continue as long as they are able. And quite a few plan to be at Saratoga long after that.
"I'm going to be buried here," Cronin says, "and it will be like coming home."
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