Whenever Dick Kounovsky hears a bugler play the solemn notes of “Taps” at a military funeral service, he feels deeply moved — and Kounovsky hears the melody more than 100 times a year through his duties as honor guard captain at the American Legion Post 32 in Longmont.
“It means the world to the family,” Kounovsky said. “It sure does bring tears, when they do the ‘Taps.’”
Due to the spread of the new coronavirus, Kounovsky may not hear those notes for awhile.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs asked that, starting March 23, committal services and military honors, including honor guard ceremonies, be “discontinued” as part of the agency’s response to the highly infectious respiratory illness.
At funeral homes across the state, many memorials have also been put on hold and families will have to wait for the chance to gather together and say goodbye to their loved one.
Kounovsky, an 85-year-old Korean veteran, has been part of the honor guard for 20 years. On March 13, Kounovsky helped lead the ceremony during two memorial services — the last he will be part of for an unknown amount of time. Before the VA asked for the services to be suspended, Kounovsky was already thinking about potential health risk for the 12 to 14 people who assist in the duty.
“I asked the guys, ‘this virus is getting pretty bad and I would like to suspend operations of the honor guard until further notice. How many of you agree with me?’ Every one of the (14 American Legion members who were present) did,” Kounovsky said.”There’s a few of us who are in our 60s, 70s and 80s and we just didn’t need to get out there with crowds.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are 65 and older are at higher risk for serious illness from the virus, though, people of all ages have contracted the disease.
Fellow Post 32 honor guard member Emery Patrick , a Vietnam combat veteran, said he understands the severity of the situation, but was still disappointed that service members laid to rest couldn’t immediately receive the tribute.
“It lends some closure to the families and it gives honors to our brothers and sisters who we have lost, who have served in the military,” Patrick said. “No one likes to attend funerals. With us, we look at it as an honor and our duty to do this.”
Kounovsky’s honor guard attends on average 110 services a year within a 50-mile radius of Longmont. Kounovsky said the honor guard plans to make up the services as soon as it is safe to do so. Kounovsky coordinates the services with with local funeral homes. So far, Kounovsky said he knows of only one service that has been postponed.
The Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, where more than 100,000 veterans have been laid to rest, remains open, but Raymond Dann, assistant director of the cemetery, said precautions have been put in place to limit contact in wake of the virus spread.
Dann said the National Cemetery Administration, one of the three branches of the VA, has suspended committal services and is permitting only direct interments. Family members are still allowed to witness the burial, so long as CDC guidelines of no more than 10 people gathering are being followed, Dann said.
Dann said the cemetery is preparing for the day when families will be able to safely give their loved one full honors at a later time.
“What we convey to families is we are going to be here and we want them to take care of themselves,” Dann said. “We are not shying away from ensuring that every veteran has the opportunity to have military honors out there. That’s a big part of what we do. It’s a very difficult thing to not be able to offer right now.”
Dann said families have been understanding and cooperative with the situation. So far, he said there have been no more than 10 people at a time requesting to be at a burial. If a larger group is present, he said cemetery staff will approach it “delicately” and ask them to distance themselves.
“There’s plenty of space in the national cemetery — we have a couple hundred acres,” Dann said.
In Longmont, Heath Carroll, a managing partner at Carroll-Lewellen Funeral & Cremation Services, said the spread of COVID-19 has necessitated “huge adjustments” for the funeral industry.
“We are taking care of families like we normally do, by phone and email,” Carroll said. “All funeral services are on hold until after this is over.”
Those looking to pay tribute to their loved ones have been understanding of the circumstances, Carroll said.
Howe Mortuary & Crematory in Longmont said it is also “adjusting services and number of guests in attendance” in order to follow the state and local authorities’ directives, according to the funeral home’s website.
In Boulder, Michael Murphy, owner of M.P. Murphy & Associates Funeral Directors, said he is taking similar measures and “postponing services until the threat comes to an end,” according to the Reporter Herald.
As he hunkers down at home, Kounovsky said he looks forward to the day when his honor guard can help people give their loved ones the send-off they deserve.
“When this is all over with and the families want military honors, we would be glad to go to the cemetery or wherever to do them at a later date,” Kounovsky said. “Then we might get real busy, who knows?”