For more than a decade, unpaid volunteers have been providing military honors for deceased veterans at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery south of Joliet.
They’re called Memorial Squads. And on this Veteran’s Day, we get to know a few members of the Friday squad, who on just one day a week, provide more than 700 honors services every year.
“Today we’ll be doing 16. We’ve done up to 21 on a Friday.” Larry Plansky is the Friday Squad’s leader. “Ok, shooters will be Ed Condon, welcome back, Salvador Estrada, and the triple Mikes- Johnson, Mahoney and Sloan. We do four days, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. We have approximately 125 to a130 members any point in time. On the Friday squad we have 29 current active members. We’re doing it for any number of reasons but the primary one is; it’s the right thing to do. When the service arrives we will come to attention. We will then salute the deceased as he or she is brought into the shelter.” The cemetery representative addresses family and friends. “Ladies and Gentlemen. On behalf of the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery we wish to extend our most sincere condolences for your loss.” We asked the squad leader Plansky about his own military service. “I was in the army during the Vietnam era. There’s probably a little survivor guilt involved in this.”“ At this time the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery Memorial Squad will render honors. Ready, aim, fire, fire, fire, present.” (the buglar begins playing taps) “I wear sunglasses because I don’t want the family to see how this affects me," says Plansky. I’ve also buried three friends of mine here. Hopefully we’ve allowed the veteran his last honors and the family some closure.” John Stanton is a charter member of the Friday memorial squad. “I grew up on the South side of Chicago, joined the army out of high school in 47. I fold flags. I used to shoot all the time but I couldn’t see the rifle. You got to take it apart to clean it.” Plansky speaks while Stanton folds the flag. “He was not legally blind when he started. So, he does most of it now by feel.” John's wife is buried here. “I stop by every night leaving. My daughter drives me, I don’t drive. Hi Ma. How we doing? I think of her all the time out here. I don’t go home without stopping. We had to show up again. Every day’s a little tougher.” Plansky talks about some of his other faithful Friday squad volunteers. “The people that I admire the most out here are the non-veterans.” Bob Vondrak is a retired school administrator and a non veteran. “On behalf of a great and grateful nation. You’re up close and personal with the family. And you can see it really makes a difference for them. My father was a WWII veteran, and wanted to be buried here. The day itself was cold, kind of a blur. The whole presentation just made it a little easier for my Mom and our family. Something came over me and I walked over to the squad leader and I asked how can one become a member of the memorial squad? Do you have to be a veteran? And they said “no.” (bagpiper begins playing “Amazing Grace.”) “Come out to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on Veteran’s day. But, at any time just to walk through here, I think is enough said.” (music ends)
Abraham Lincoln is the second largest National cemetery in the country and is located in Elwood, Illinois about an hour southwest of Chicago. You can share this story and learn more about joining the memorial squads at wgntv.com.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Mike D'Angelo created this story.