MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It might seem hard to believe, but few veterans were afforded full graveside honors until June of 1979. It was rare to expect a military color guard, 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps.”
“We like to say that we take care of our own,” said former United States Marine George Weiss Jr.
He served in the closing days of World War II, and knows what service and sacrifice means to a free nation. That is why he and a few other veterans decided they had to do something to honor all veteran burials.
“Well, I was taught in the Marine Corp that if you saw something that you didn’t like, change it for the better,” Weiss said. “And that’s what we did.”
What they made better is now 130-members strong. Fort Snelling National Cemetery’s Memorial Rifle Squad will provide full honors at any Fort Snelling burial, large or small, and in all kinds of weather.
“It was 35-below zero one morning, but we made it,” said Weiss, .
Their rifle squads are named after each day of the week. For years, Weiss headed up the Friday Squad.
“Every veteran out here doing this feels it in his heart every day, it doesn’t get boring,” said Friday Squad member Mike Pluta.
His father, Larry Pluta, was also a founding member with Weiss. When he passed away, Pluta dedicated himself to the service, and now commands Friday Squad.
“We are humbled, proud and honored to give this last farewell to this veteran,” Pluta said.
And after 39 years of presenting flags to a veteran’s family and firing off 21-gun salutes, they have come upon a somber milestone.
On Friday afternoon, a week short of their 39th year, World War II Navy veteran Ray Anderson would be the squad’s 75,000th graveside service.
“It wrenches my heart to this day listening to ‘Taps,'” Pluta said.
To honor all the years of dedicated service to veterans and their families — 75,000 to be exact — the squad gathered inside their Fort Snelling National Cemetery office. They would gather around to receive a cake and governor’s official proclamation.
Seventy-five thousand is a huge number of services for sure, but one is no more important than any other.
“Everybody takes pride once they get this patch,” Weiss said.
Weiss, the squad’s longest-serving member, says every veteran deserves the same honor and service for the service they gave to us
The Memorial Rifle Squad has performed an average of 17 services a day. More than 400 veterans have volunteered over the squad’s 39-year history.
Below is WCCO Photojournalist Tom Aviles’ award-winning piece on the Friday Squad from 2001