MILITARY FUNERAL HONORS FOR U.S. VETERANS: INCREASING DEMANDS ON THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
CRS Report for Congress
Military Funeral Honors for U.S. Veterans:
Increasing Demands on the Department of Defense
Katherine Lemay Brown
National Defense Fellow
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2000, P.L. 106-65,
mandates military honors at funerals for all eligible veterans. The mandate will likely
require the Department of Defense (DOD) to divert some defense funding and military
manpower to a non-warfighting task. This Act converts honors details from a time-
honored tradition, which the military services rendered according to their standards and
resources, to a mandated requirement. Current funding pressures and tight manpower
levels, coupled with increasing veterans’ requests and expectations, may make it more
difficult for the services to furnish sufficient personnel for veterans’ funerals. However,
the current mandate appears to fall short of the veteran service organizations’
expectations, which may lead to continued controversy about the issue. This report will
not be updated.
Until the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2000 is fully implemented, the
military services, in accordance with DOD directives, will provide funerary tribute/military
honors within the constraints of available resources.1 DOD has charged the Air Force as
the executive agent for implementation of the new law. The current military regulation
allows for differing levels of support for active duty members and Medal of Honor
1Department of Defense Directive 1300.15, “Military Funeral Support,” 30 September 1985.
Active Duty, Reserve Component Personnel on Active Duty and Medal of Honor recipients receive
full traditional honors consisting of pall bearers, firing party, bugler and chaplain. Retirees receive
honors in a range of traditional honors to a single military representative to present the US flag.
Veterans and National Guard/Reserve Component Personnel receive a single military representative
to present the U.S. flag.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
recipients, retirees and veterans.2 The military services operate under service-specific
policies; the honors vary from service to service and are dependent upon available
resources. For example, the Marine Corps policy provides full military honors for all
active duty, reserve, retired and former Marines based upon available resources; the Army
policy is to provide full or partial honors or a service representative to meet the DOD
directive. DOD strongly encourages the services to surpass the minimums. In addition,
there have been occasions when honors were not rendered due to lack of resources. The
services utilize both active and Ready Reserve forces3 , but have not been authorized
specific manpower for honors details.
The congressional rationale for originating the law can be found in the Strom
Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act for FY1999, H.Rept. 105-736, Section
567, “The conferees agree that men and women have unselfishly answered the call to arms
at tremendous personal sacrifice. These men and women who have served honorably,
whether in war or peace, deserve commemoration for their military service at the time of
their death by an appropriate tribute. Burial honors are an important means of reminding
Americans of the sacrifices endured to keep the Nation free.”
The National Defense Authorization Act for FY19994 required the DOD to provide
an honor guard of not less than three individuals, with the capability of playing Taps, for
every veteran funeral request that occurred after December 31, 1999.5 The Act also
directed the Secretary of Defense to host a conference, to be completed not later than
December 31, 1998, to determine means of improving and increasing military honors for
veteran funerals, and allowed for the Secretary to make a rebuttal to the law and to report
findings and recommendations back to Congress.
As directed, DOD, in conjunction with the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), held
the conference on November 17, 1998. The conferees included senior officials from DOD
and VA, as well as representatives from veteran service organizations and funeral directors
associations. Charged with reviewing current policies/practices, trends in veteran
deaths/potential funeral demands, military resources, associated costs, communication
concerns and alternative solutions, the conference participants sought to balance this
mission and military readiness.
2A military retiree is one who has completed a military career, a minimum of 20 years of honorable
service, if not retired earlier for disability, and retires/receives military retirement pay. A veteran
is one who has honorably served a designated contract with the military. All military retirees are
veterans, but most veterans are not retirees.
3Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Reserve Affairs), RSC: DD-RA(M) 1147/1148,
FY1998. “The Ready Reserve is comprised of military members of the Reserve and National
Guard, organized in units, or as individuals, liable for recall to active duty to augment the active
components in time of war or national emergency. The Ready Reserve consists of three Reserve
component subcategories: the Selected Reserve [consists of those units and individuals designated
by their respective Services and approved by the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, as so essential
to initial wartime missions as they have number one priority over all other Reservists], the
Individual Ready Reserve, and the Inactive National Guard.”
4P.L. 105-261, Section 567, enacted October 17, 1998.
5P.L. 105-261 did not require the three persons to be uniformed military personnel.
Proposed Department Policy/Recommendations. Following the conference, DOD
reported to Congress recommendations for active duty members’, retirees’ and veterans’
funerals. The conferees recommended a minimum honors detail of two personnel, with
at least one uniformed military representative of the deceased’s relevant service, and a
second person, either a uniformed person or other authorized provider of funeral honors
(i.e., member of a veterans service organization). These two individuals would provide
the ceremonial folding and presentation of the American flag to the next of kin and would
play Taps (preferably by a bugler, but possibly a high-quality recording). In addition, to
secure reserve personnel participation, they recommended legislative changes that would
give support by suggesting additional retirement points6 and pay for reserve forces
participation. They also recommended that reserve forces be allowed to remain on active
duty in excess of 180 days during a fiscal year to provide military honors, and that
workers’ compensation/liability insurance should be provided for non-DOD authorized
providers.7 In addition, DOD vowed to enhance communications and coordination of
obtaining funeral honors by establishing a single 1-800-number and Web Site for
information and funeral honor requests. The DOD also initiated the development of an
information kit to be distributed nation-wide to local funeral directors.
Legislation. The National Defense Authorization Act for FY2000 mandates not less
than two members of the uniformed armed forces, active or reserve, with at least one
uniformed military representative of the deceased’s parent service to provide the
ceremonial folding and presentation of the American flag, and the playing of Taps. The
Act also expands the definition of veteran (as defined in section 101(24) of Title 38)8 to
include the Selected Reserve (as described in section 2301(f) of Title 38).9 It also provides
for reservists to receive additional benefits of one point for each day on which funeral
honors duty is performed for at least two hours, medical care for associated injury/illness,
6Points are a method of determining the extent of a reservist’s participation in the Reserve
Component; point totals determine various aspects of reserve retirement eligibility and the amount
of reserve retirement pay received. The authorization of additional points could serve as an
incentive to secure reserve participation.
7Department of Defense “Report to Congress on Military Funeral Honors for Veterans,” 17
November 1998, Executive Summary.
8As defined by Title 38, USC, Section 101(2) and (24): (2) The term ‘’veteran’‘ means a person
who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released
therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable. (24) The term ‘’active military, naval, or air
service” includes active duty, any period of active duty for training during which the individual
concerned was disabled or died from a disease or injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty, and
any period of inactive duty training during which the individual was disabled or died from an injury
incurred or aggravated in line of duty.
9As defined by Title 38, USC, Section 2301(f): The Secretary shall furnish a flag to drape the
casket of each deceased member or former member of the Selected Reserve (section 10143 of title
10) (A) who completed at least one enlistment as a member of the Selected Reserve or, in the case
of an officer, completed the period of initial obligation service as a member of the Selected Reserve;
(B) who was discharged before completion of that person’s initial enlistment as a member of the
Selected Reserve or, in the case of an officer, period of initial obligated service as a member of the
Selected Reserve, for a disability incurred or aggravated in line of duty; or (C) who died while a
member of the Selected Reserve. The terms Selected Reserve and reserves include members of the
and a $50 stipend. The legislated benefits for reservists are less than the conference
participants and veteran service organizations recommended.
The significant differences between the DOD recommendation and the legislation are
in the requirement for both personnel to be members of the uniformed armed forces, in the
expansion of the eligible veteran population to include the Selected Reserve and in the
authorized reserve benefits.
Strains on DOD Resources
Because additional resources were not provided for the funeral honors requirement
in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2000, it will require DOD to divert
defense funding and military manpower to a non-warfighting task at a time when the
armed forces are, by consensus, experiencing high operations tempo difficulties.
Furthermore, the demands on DOD are likely to increase as the actuarial trend of veterans’
deaths rises with the continually aging World War II veteran population, and as the
definition of veteran for the purpose of funeral honors is expanded to include the Selected
The annual number of deaths of veterans in the United States has increased since
1989. The veteran population continues to rise, and the trend is not expected to peak until
The VA stated that the number of veteran deaths increased 81,000 from 1989 to 1997, and
is projected to increase an additional 83,000 by 2008.10 This estimate excludes the number
of eligible Selected Reserve veterans. It has been estimated that there could be 60,00011
Selected Reserve veterans added annually based upon the new legislation.
Not all veterans’ deaths result in a request for funeral honor details. In 1998 the
active duty services provided honors for about 37,000 funerals in addition to those12
rendered at Arlington National Cemetery. This number of provided honor details is
approximately 8% of all veteran deaths for the same period. These numbers do not include
the honor details performed by the National Guard or by veteran service organizations; the
American Legion alone reports having at least 4,000 honors teams nationwide. These
numbers do not include the number of requests that were not honored.
Estimating the number of requests for honor guards from those eligible is very
difficult.13 Two models were reviewed during the DOD-hosted conference in November
of all projected veteran deaths that result in a request for a headstone at their funeral as
reported by VA. However, many believe that the estimate should be based on the 75%
of all veteran deaths that result in a request for a flag as reported by the VA. Under the
National Defense Authorization Act for FY2000, if the 45% estimate is used, requests
could grow to at least 270,000 by the year 2008. If 75% is a more accurate reflection,
requests could be 465,000 by 2008. Regardless of which estimate is accurate, the result
is likely to be significant increases in demand on the resources of the military services.14
In an attempt to meet this possible tenfold-plus increase, the services will turn to the
reserves and veterans service organizations for additional volunteer support. Although this
support is a partial solution in some areas, some active duty bases will likely be required
to build and commit full-time honor guard teams.
An additional issue is that there are fewer uniformed personnel, in fewer locations,
to meet the mandated requirements. The active duty military has declined to 1.4 million
today, a 35% decrease from 1989; and the reserve force has decreased by 25%. Of the
current 1.4 million active personnel, 300,000-500,000 are unable to be called upon for
funeral honors support due to being stationed or deployed outside the United States, or
due to other circumstances such as formal training, travel, or medical care. Recent
10Department of Defense “Report to Congress on Military Funeral Honors for Veterans,” 17
November 1997, Section I.5.
11The number of Selected Reserve veterans has not been defined by DOD or VA. In work between
the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Manpower and Personnel, the office of the
Assistant Secretary for Reserve Affairs and the VA, they have estimated for budget and planning
purposes 60,000 Selected Reserve veteran deaths per year.
12The VA does not provide honor details.
13A major reason the estimating is difficult is because there is no single statistical data base for the
existing system of requesting and supplying military funeral honors for veterans, thus the current
data is incomplete.
14The improved communication and coordination of procuring honor details via the 1-800-number
and the additional information provided CONUS-wide to all funeral directors will also likely
increase the number of requests.
recruiting and retention challenges have increased the shortfall of qualified personnel. In
addition, 81 of 495 major military installations have closed in the past ten years.15
The base closure program has produced large geographic areas of responsibility that
sometimes include more than one state. Since there are no uniformed military members
authorized for the honors duty, enlisted active duty volunteers, who have performed their
regular duty, often have to take to the road for 5-7 honor details in as many days. To help
cope with the new responsibilities, many honor guards have already moved from an all-
volunteer group to a quota system of assignment. Commanders are curtailing other
traditional requests of flag details for active duty retreats, retirements, and promotions as
they do not have the manpower to meet these internal requests/traditions, as well as the16
veteran funeral obligations.
Veteran Service Organizations
Historically, veteran service organizations have contributed to debates over DOD
policy on military funeral honors. Organizations, such as The Military Coalition and The
Retired Officers Association, have demonstrated significant support for codification of a
minimum of three uniformed service members, with every effort being made to provide full
honors for every funeral.17 These groups were among the first to highlight a need for
improved communications concerning the honors available and are looking forward to the
DOD initiative to create a 1-800-number and Web Site. They continue to argue for
increases in appropriations to support the funeral honors details. Since the current Act
appears to fall short of their position of no less than three personnel for honors details and
significant increases in reserve benefits, the controversy of this issue is likely to continue.
15Office of the Secretary of Defense News Release, Public Affairs, No.183-99, 21 April 1999.
16Telephone conversation, Colonel D. Baker, 93d Support Group, September 2, 1999.
17The Retired Officers Association, Legislative Affairs Testimony, March 24,1999; and
e-mail, Mr. Bob Norton, Deputy Director, Government Relations, The Retired Officers
Association, August 30, 1999.