Plenty of parades and ceremonies for Memorial Day, but staffing color guards gets trickier

May 24, 2019

This holiday weekend, ceremonies will be held throughout Western New York, from parades to the more solemn remembrances of those who died while in military service for the United States. While there's no shortage of events, there is a growing challenge to staff one of the most important elements of Memorial Day gatherings: the color guard.

At issue, according to Erie County Veterans Services Agency director David Shenk, is the aging membership of veteran posts which usually contribute volunteers. Some posts, as their members have aged and died off, have closed in recent years.

A color guard marches down Main Street in Williamsville in this 2016 photo. Finding enough veterans to staff color guards is becoming trickier, as they age. Some municipalities have turned to non-veterans to help complete the color guards.
Credit WBFO file photo/Michael Mroziak

"The veterans' average age is continuing to rise, especially those that are active in posts," said Shenk, who is also a First Sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve. "That has forced some color guards to decrease in size or merge with a neighboring post to be able to have enough people for a good-sized color guard."

Such was the case many years ago in the Town of Boston, where Shenk lives. He explained the idea that was raised to beef up the numbers. In 2004, when he was serving as a VFW commander and the Boston Town Clerk, he was approached by a firefighter who suggested they get involved.

Color guards from then on have not been exclusively veterans but they've had adequate numbers.

"We decided to reach out to the three fire companies, the Boston Emergency Squad and also the Town Board, private citizens and the VFW, and we were able to build a good-sized color guard," he said. "We actually carried the U.S., VFW, town, four emergency service flags, two M-1 ceremonial rifles and two ceremonial axes."

While you don't have to be a veteran to serve on a color guard, you do need to know the drill procedures. Shenk typically has participants arrive an hour before a parade to instruct them on the proper steps.

Have the non-veteran participants been able to maintain the standard expected of a color guard, especially for a parade on a holiday honoring military men and women who have passed away?

"I've gotten some good compliments afterwards that they didn't realize there was only two of us that actually served in the military who are in the parade," Shenk said.