The men of American Legion Post 93 got an early start to their Veterans Day. The vets had to report to their post at 7 a.m. before beginning a long day of honor guard ceremonies.
An honor guard consists seven gunmen that perform the 21-gun salute, a sergeant to call out commands, a flag detail and a bugler to play the signature call “Taps,” a song that is usually played at military funerals.
Post 93 is a place where the 75 year olds are considered the “young guys.” Honor guard members are volunteers and it helps if the members have time off or are retired, they explained. They conduct the ceremonies year round at the nearby Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery.
Retired U.S. Army veteran Robert “Bob” Winski loaded each of the guns with three bullets and then put the guns on safety mode. One-by-one, the other members trickled into the building, donning their honor guard uniform.
With a firm handshake and a game of catch up, they had their routine down to a science.
“Hello, gentleman,” one vet said as he entered the room.
“Please, use that term lightly,” another responded in a jesting manner.
They had five ceremonies lined up for the day — a combination of schools and businesses — and had to make it back to the post by 4 p.m. because H-E-B was catering an event in their honor. The first stop was Mims Elementary of Mission CISD.
“It’s nice for the kids. They like to hear the guns,” said retired army veteran Juan Angel Longoria. “It’s an experience for them and for a lot of other people. A lot of people haven’t seen a military funeral.”
Longoria retired as a sergeant first class in 1997. The Mission native joined the service while he was still in high school and earned his diploma in west Germany. He was in the army from 1970 – 1973, then he was part time recruiter in the U.S. National Guard from 1976 and into the 80s. After that he went back into active duty.
In Longoria’s experience, a common misconception about the military is that all troops are on the battlefield, he said.
“I used to talk to a lot of parents of kids who wanted to join the military and they always thought that you’re going to get into the army, they’re going to give them a rifle, put them in a tank and send them to war,” he said. “There’s a lot of jobs in the military and whatever job they train for is what they’re going to do.”
Longoria tried to get his kids to join because he said joining the service is the best thing young people can do for themselves.
“You learn to appreciate your family, you learn to appreciate everything, even eating a taco in the morning,” he said.
The army vet has been a member of the American Legion for about 30 years, but it’s not just a place for fun times, he said.
Last year, Post 93 donated about $25,000 to various entities in Mission, according to Bob Winski. They gave 18 scholarships to students and also work with organizations such as the boy scouts, the Boys and Girls Club and the police and fire department.
“Everything we make goes back to the young people in the city of Mission and no one ever tells people,” Winski, a retired sergeant first class, said. “Anybody that comes in and spends money is not throwing their money away, it goes to the kids. Us oldies, if we haven’t made it by now we’re in trouble.”
Army veteran James Konopelski, a 77-year-old Winter Texan from Sylvan Beach, New York, recalled a time when a woman walked into the Legion in Mission asking for gas money to get her to a funeral in Illinois. She had two kids and her military husband died some time ago. The Legion and women in the American Legion Auxiliary spotted her more than $200.
“She left and everybody was saying ‘We won’t see that money ever again.’ About three months later don’t we get a check for the money back,” Konopelski said. “We trusted her and she paid it back. If you’re in need and you go into a Legion wherever you are, they’ll help you out.”
After a long day of Veterans Day ceremonies, the honor guard returned to their post. Five ceremonies is the maximum amount of events they will complete in a day, honor guard Comdr. Rudy Flores said.
“We feel like we’ve accomplished what we wanted to do,” the commander said as he sipped on a beer. “We do it from our heart, for our community and for the kids in school. We feel good.”
Flores is retired U.S. Air Force and a 1969 Mission High School graduate. He was a dead engine specialist in the service and direct support to those stationed in Vietnam. Flores worked on C-130 aircrafts, helicopters and F-4 fighter bombers.
His favorite part about conducting the honor guard ceremonies is seeing the kids and their appreciation for veterans. Because Post 93 cannot accommodate everyone on Veterans Day, the honor guard attends additional ceremonies throughout the week. But Flores said they always try to give priority to the schools.
“One thing that they learn is that the veterans are out there,” Flores said. “They learn about the 21-gun salute, they learn about “Taps” and it’s going to stay in their mind what a veteran is and why we have this special holiday.”