A Complete Guide On Honoring Military Personnel

Commemorating Military Service

Our military personnel, veterans, and their families make tremendous sacrifices in their service to our nation, being recognized, respected, and honored for their courage and bravery in the face of war, tyranny, and terror. Whether they served by storming the beaches of Normandy, fought in the long and arduous battle of the Vietnam War, or took to the sands of Iraq, every service member wearing the United States military uniform are commemorated for keeping the country safe and free of danger.

In honor of their selfless commitment, our nation has many days of remembrance[1], such as Vietnam Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day, and Memorial Day. While these days serve the purpose of honoring those who have served, our airmen, marines, soldiers, sailors, and coast guardsmen are also privy to military memorials. These are ceremonies that enact the burial rites given to eligible service personnel, and in this guide, we will outline which groups of military service members are commemorated in this way, why this is important, what type of benefits they receive, what rituals or customs are used according to branch, and specific ways that your military member can be memorialized both in service and in private.

Which Groups of Military Service Members are Commemorated for Their Service?

The United States Armed Forces includes five service branches, all of which are commemorated for their service through the program, “Honoring Those Who Served” which provides dignified military funerals or memorials with full honors to eligible service members through The Department of Defense. This program is in response to Public Law 106-65, which requires every eligible veteran to receive a military funeral honors ceremony with the playing of Taps, a United States burial flag, and no fewer than two members of the Armed Forces in uniform (more about this will be described later in this guide)[1].

All five service branches have access to this program; the five branches are as follows.

The United States Air Force And Air Force Reserves

While this is the youngest branch of the military, existing as a completely separate Corp of the Army prior to 1947, their primary mission is to provide support for both land (Army) and naval units (Navy).

As the name implies, the United States Air Force encompasses all units trained to operate in the skies, whether that’s as a pilot in the cockpit of a plane, helicopter, transport aircraft, or tanker aircraft. The Air Force is responsible for defending United States interests in space and air and is responsible for military satellites, light and heavy bomber aircraft, fight aircraft and they also control strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.

Those on active duty in the Air Force are supplemented by the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard (separate reserve component).

The United States Navy And Navy Reserves

The United States Navy is comprised of personnel who are trained to operate from the water. This includes submariners, sailors, and the captains of the ships.

When conflict arises, the United States Navy is responsible for supplementing the Air Force with Navy aircraft carriers, which are deployed to areas where fixed runways are impossible. This allows aircraft to descend down and park on the Navy aircraft carriers when a dry landing is not permitted. An aircraft carrier can hold fighter planes, and bomber planes mostly.

As for the Navy ships, they are equipped with heavy guns, cruise missiles, and submarines which are used for stealth attacks. Navy personnel are also responsible for transporting marines to conflict zones and are supplemented by the Naval Reserves.

While not the largest branch of the United States military, they are the largest naval force in the world.

The United States Army And Army Reserve

The United States Army is the main ground force and includes all land-based troops deployed globally.

The military personnel in this branch can range from foot soldiers to vehicle operators as well as the vehicles that are operated, such as artillery, tanks, attack helicopters, and tactical nuclear weapons. The United States Army is supported by two separate reserve personnel, the United States Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. The difference between these two is that the United States Army Reserve is managed by the Federal Government and the United States National Guard is run and owned by each individual state.

The primary function of the United States Army is to protect and defend the country; it is also the oldest of military service branches, being established in 1775.

The United States Marine Corps And Marine Corps Reserves

The United States Marine Corps are trained to operate in a range of environments, but specialize in amphibious operations, where they can work on both land and water.

Those within the United States Marine Corps are trained to assault, capture, and control beachheads and provide primary attack routes for ground troops. The marines are able to carry out specialized tasks that require a mix of skills and like to be self-sufficient. This means that they have fighter, fighter/bomber aircraft, attack helicopters, and air power at their disposal but use the Navy for support. You will not find medical personnel within the Marine Corps, and those that do accompany the marines on missions are specifically trained Navy medics.

This branch was established in 1775 and are universally known as the first boots on the ground and hardened warriors.

The United States Coast Guard And Coast Guard Reserves

The United States Coast Guard is the main occupying force along the United States coastline and in nearby ocean waters.

They act as all of a defensive line and in peacetime are primarily concerned with law enforcement, search and rescue, boating safety, and illegal immigration control. Unlike the other branches of the United States military, the Coast Guard is under the command of the Department of Homeland Security, however, should war erupt, command is transferred to the Navy until otherwise necessary. Within the Coast Guard branch, personnel deal with boats, ships, aircraft, and shore stations.

They are supported by the Coast Guard Reserves and is always commanded by the Coast Guard Commandant, which is a four-star admiral.

Why Is It Important to Pay Special Tribute to These Service Members?

While it can be difficult to understand the exact sacrifices and hardships that our military personnel and their families have made and gone through in their decision to serve, what we can understand is that they have chosen to serve the interests of the country and, by extension, everyone within it. To pay special tribute to these service members is to show them the respect they deserve and acknowledge the courage, loyalty, and patriotism they have shown in service.

Beyond this, our service members and their families have fought and stood for the freedom from oppression and tyranny, defending the security and prosperity of the nation by taking the responsibility to protect and serve those within it. To honor military personnel is to mark their contribution, recognize their integral role, and to understand and support the cause at hand. This applies to both active duty service members and those who have served but are no longer in uniform.

What Type of Military Service Benefits do These Personnel Receive?

Our military service members, veterans, and their families are able to take advantage of special benefits related to memorial services. A military funeral honor is provided to all eligible veterans when either the military personnel or the next of kin request it and is provided free of charge according to federal law.

The military funeral honors are conducted by a military honor guard and is provided by the United States Armed Services. In order to understand what these service benefits are and how they are to be received, we have outlined them in several easy-to-read categories below.

Who is eligible and what are they eligible for?

To be eligible to receive a military honor guard and memorial service from the United States Armed Forces, the deceased military personnel must fit into the following criteria:

  • They must have been an active-duty member within a branch of the military or be a member of one of the reserves.
  • The military personnel who had been previously discharged, must have been discharged under any other condition other than dishonorable.
  • The military personnel had to have been a former military member and completed at least one term of enlistment or period of initial obligated service with a selected reserve and was discharged under any other condition other than dishonorable from the reserve.

In order to be considered as an eligible veteran, the term active duty requires that the service member must have successfully completed a tour of duty and departed under conditions other than dishonorable. For eligibility to be verified, a DD 214 form must be provided. If it is not available, any discharge document that shows departed services under conditions other than dishonorable, can be used.

The DD 214 document can be requested by next of kin from the National Archives, online. Once eligibility is verified, next of kin must request the funeral honors service through the branch that their military service member served in.

What funeral benefits & reimbursements does a military personnel receive?

As of 2014, the Veteran Affairs department has streamlined the process for paying out benefits, compensating next of kin based on a set of criteria. Funeral benefits are now paid out at a flat rate prior to the funeral taking place, allowing for the funeral burial to be budgeted and paid for more easily.

The amount compensated for is dependent on whether the death of the military service member was considered a service-related connected death or not and whether the veteran was hospitalized during the time of their death. With regards to reimbursement, these payments are either for a burial as a funeral expense allowance or a plot interment allowance.

What are the amounts payable?

The flat rate amount given is based on whether the death was service-related or not.

Service Related Death

A military personnel that had a service-related death can receive up to the maximum amount of $2,000. If the military personnel are buried in a VA national cemetery, the VA will reimburse some or all of the cost for the transportation of the remains.

Non Service Related Death

If it is a non-service-related death, the maximum burial allowance is $300, and the maximum plot interment allowance is $796.

Hospitalized By VA At Time Of Death

If the military personnel were hospitalized by the VA during the time of their death, the maximum burial allowance is $796, and the maximum plot interment allowance is $796.

If the military personnel is considered an indigent veteran with no next of kin, meaning that they have either been willfully abandoned or not claimed by family, the VA will furnish a casket or cremation urn for interment at a national, state, or tribal veteran cemetery.

What are the eligibility criteria for funeral benefits?

In order to receive the above payable amounts, the veteran must have been discharged from the military under conditions other than less than dishonorable and must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • They passed away from a service-connected disability,
  • They were receiving compensation at the time of their death - most often a VA pension,
  • They received full military retirement or disability pay instead of VA pension or compensation,
  • They passed away while under a VA care contract at a non-VA facility or were hospitalized by the VA,
  • They passed away while in authorized travel to a VA treatment facility,
  • They had reopened or had a VA compensation or pension claim pending during their death and would have been eligible to receive benefits prior,
  • They passed away in a VA-approved nursing home before or after October 1996.

If the military service personnel meet at least one of the above criteria, then the benefit will be paid out to either a surviving spouse, children (no age restrictions), veteran’s parent, the survivor of a legally recognized union, or the executor of the veteran’s estate. No claim is required if the surviving spouse is on record, as the benefit will be paid out automatically, although a VA Form 21P-530 (Application for Burial Benefits) may be filled out and a DD 214 discharge document may also be submitted.

Are there any survivorship benefits given to the family?*

One such benefit is the Survivor Benefit Plan[1], which is an insurance plan that pays out the surviving spouse with a monthly payment. It is to help replace the loss of a veteran’s retirement income and designed to help surviving families in case of a military personnel’s early death, economic inflation, and a veteran outliving their own provided benefits.

  • At retirement, the full basic Survivor Benefit Plan takes effect for your spouse and children automatically unless your spouse provides written consent to reduce it or decline it completely.
  • You can choose coverage for your spouse, children, former spouse, and in some cases, insurable interests such as business partners or parents.
  • A monthly premium is paid out and is based on which level of coverage you select. The highest your Survivor Benefit Plan can be is 55% of your retirement pay.

You also have the option of having the plan pay only to your surviving spouse, who must be married to you for a period of at least one year. You can also choose coverage for your child only, which means they get the amount when they turn eighteen or twenty-two if they are unmarried and a full-time student.

If you choose to give coverage to a former spouse, your current spouse is not eligible to receive anything. If you choose to give the coverage to a disabled dependent, these payments will go into a Special Needs Trust.

Does the family receive a flag or headstone?

A United States burial flag is provided, free of charge, to be draped over the casket during the funeral service. It may also be used to accompany the cremation urn.

This flag is given to the next-of-kin as a keepsake after the funeral. Any veteran who is eligible for a military honors funeral will receive a burial flag and it can be applied for by completing the Application for the United States Flag for Burial Purpose form. If the flag is lost, destroyed, or stolen, it cannot be replaced.

A government headstone or marker will be given, free of charge, to eligible veteran applicants for unmarked graves.

To be eligible, a copy of an official military discharge document bearing the official seal is sufficient. If a veteran had a privately purchased headstone, a marker or medallion may be provided, free of charge, to be fixed upon it if the veteran died before or after November 1990. If the applicant is placing the marker on a headstone in a private cemetery, setting fees may apply.

A headstone or marker cannot be issued to a dependent or spouse in a private cemetery but may be eligible for one if they are buried in a national cemetery, state veteran’s cemetery, or at a military post/base cemetery.

Who Is Eligible For Burial In Military Cemeteries?

Military personnel who die while on active duty are eligible to be buried in one of the 136 national cemeteries. To be eligible for this, the veteran must have been separated or discharged from active duty under any condition other than dishonorable discharge and must have completed at least one period of service. Minor children, dependents, and spouses of eligible veterans and of the armed forces are also eligible. To be buried in a national cemetery, an official military discharge document with an official seal must be presented.

A veteran may also submit the VA Form 40-10007 which will determine their eligibility prior to their death. While a preference for which national military cemetery can be noted, it is not guaranteed as the VA will assign the veteran to the cemetery with available space. For instance, Arlington National Cemetery has limited eligibility than other national cemeteries, but the eligibility requirements are the same. Those who died while on active duty, their immediate family, retirees and their immediate family, recipients of the Purple Heart, Silver Star and above, and honorably discharged Prisoners of War, are all eligible. The difference is that Arlington National Cemetery is under the jurisdiction of the army.

What Are The Characteristics Of A Military Service Funeral?

During a military funeral held at a national cemetery, an honor guard will be present with no less than two members of the Armed Forces. The ceremony will include folding and presenting the United States flag to the next-of-kin and “Taps” will be played by a bugler. When no bugler is available, an electronic recording of “Taps” will be played. The veteran’s parent service will present the flag via a representative. Additional honors may include a gun salute and casket bearers depending on the level of service achieved.

Veteran Honors

A veteran who has not retired but served in the military regardless of branch, will have the flag presented by an honor guard and “Taps” will be played. This is known as veteran honors.

Retiree Honors

A veteran who has served for more than twenty years and is retired from service, whether that be by choice, disability, or health reasons, will include a seven to ten-person honor guard including a chaplain, firing parties, and pallbearers. They will also have the flag presented and “Taps” will be played. This is known as retiree honors.

Full Honors

A veteran who has passed away during active duty, are Medal of Honor recipients, or are General Officers will receive full honors. This includes a full honor guard of at least twenty-one members, including pallbearers, chaplain, and a firing squad. It will also include the folding and presentation of the flag and “Taps” will be played.

A caisson service may be provided which involves the coffin being carried by a horse-drawn carriage to the burial site and surrounded by the honor guard. A military fly over may also be provided to those who have been awarded specific medals - eligibility requirements can be seen here.

At the conclusion of the funeral mass, the urn or casket will be transported to the funeral home. A chaplain will lead the way to the pit, where the pallbearers will place the casket or urn into the ground. The flag will be leveled over the casket or urn, and seats will be taken. Once the service has been completed, all will rise, and a rifle volley will be initiated. The bugler will then play “Taps” which is followed by another rifle volley.

The flag will then be folded and presented to the next-of-kin. The folding of the flag is one of the most important elements, as it holds great symbolism for the Armed Forces and their families.

What Is The Final Salute?

When a military service personnel dies at a VA hospital, the final salute is enacted. The veteran’s body is placed on a gurney, it is draped with the flag of the United States, and “Taps” is played to signal that a veteran has passed away. Any fellow veterans or soldiers within the area will give the military salute and civilians will place their hands on their hearts.

What Are The Customs/Rituals Used In Military Memorials?

Despite there being multiple branches of the military, most military funerals follow the same procedure, differing only in their location. Typically, the remains of the deceased are transported to the United States on a military cargo plane to the Dover Air Force Base, where they are then sent to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Centre a short distance away. However, if specially requested by the family, a veteran may undergo a burial at sea, which follows a slightly different procedure.

Land Burial

When performed on land, military funerals all contain the same key elements with small variations based on specifics about the individual, such as their rank.

Firstly, the body must be transferred to the burial site, which is accomplished via a hearse or horse drawn caisson. The casket is always pre-covered in an American flag before arriving, and the entire casket is carried by an assembly of honor guards to the grave.

An applicable religious leader, such as a chaplain, reads a committal service before the flag is lifted above the casket by the honor guards. The flag is folded in half twice lengthwise then starting with the blue field, is folded in a triangular pattern 13 times and is then presented to the family.

A firing squad, consisting of three to seven members depending on the rank of the deceased (though always an odd number) shoots three volleys before a bugler sounds out “Taps” from 30-50 yards away. The three volleys signify that the deceased have been properly cared for.

Afterward, the flag is folded, potentially with one of the spent shells from the firing squad among the folds. Finally, accompanied by a brief statement of gratitude, the highest-ranking officer present delivers the folded flag to the family, followed by a salute.

In addition to this, a regiment of fighter jets may perform a flyby in a formation called “missing man,” although this is not required.

Sea Burial

If the family of the deceased has requested a burial at sea, the proceedings are much the same as those on land with some key differences.

Firstly, the service takes place on a deployed, U.S. military vessel, so only military personnel are able to attend.

After the committal is read, the casket or urn is slid overboard into the water, or the deceased’s ashes are spread freely, in addition to any flowers or wreaths thrown over by the flag bearer.

Finally, since the family cannot be present, the commanding officer of the ship is given up to ten days to mail the family a letter containing the date and time of the committal, the flag, a map of where the committal took place, and any pictures or videos taken during the service[1].

8 Ways To Memorialize Your Military Member During Their Service

Military funerals follow certain protocols but that does not mean that the family does not play a significant role in the funeral planning and services of their military service person. If you want to memorialize your fallen military member in a personal way during the actual memorial service, consider asking for or requesting the following ideas.

1. You can have particular scriptures read during service.

If your military personnel was religious and there is to be a chaplain present at the service, consider having specific scriptures read out during the service. The following scriptures may be appropriate: Isaiah 61:1-3, Joshua 1:9, Romans 8:38-39, Psalm 139:9-10, and John 14:27.

2. Choose pallbearers that your military member served with.

If you are in touch with members of the squad that your military member served with, consider asking them to be pallbearers during the funeral. This can be extremely symbolic both for them, for your military service member, and for yourself if you are close with these individuals.

3. Wear miniature versions of their pins and ribbons.

When a military service member receives a lapel or medal, they are encouraged to purchase a miniature version. These can be worn on civilian clothes during military ceremonies, funerals, weddings, inaugurals and the like.

4. What their presence should be at the funeral.

During the funeral mass or wake, the military member’s boots, rifle, and dog tags may be present as a reminder of who they are. It is also customary that a memorial photograph be provided.

5. Cremation jewelry or memorial urns used to pay tribute.

An excellent way to memorialize a military personnel is by creating or bringing personalized mementos to the funeral. For instance, a Stainless Steel Marines Medal Pendant is a great keepsake that could be worn around the neck of a bereaved loved one as a way to display grief, pride, or dedication.

At the funeral mass or wake, a Veteran Flag Cremation Urn With Engraved Photo may work well as a simple yet stunning tribute to their service and status.

6. What type of flowers are appropriate?

Pink carnations are long-lasting and mean remembrance, Chrysanthemum are white and associated with grief and mourning, Cyclamen is a delicate pink or white and means goodbye, Forget Me Nots are blue and also means remembrance.

Other appropriate flowers are Gladiola which have soft colors and mean strength, morality, and virtue, Sweet Peas are pink, white or lavender and mean goodbye, and White Poppies symbolize sleep or death.

7. What types of items should be handed down to relatives?

Items like dog tags, uniforms, medals, pins, and ribbons are often handed down to relatives.

8. Who should speak?

Generally, it is only the chaplain that speaks in a speech at a military funeral. Children are not permitted at military funerals unless specifically requested by the family.

How Can You Personally Commemorate Your Fallen Military Service Member?

After the funeral services, families often look for ways in which they can commemorate the life of their service member. These tributes and remembrances celebrate and honor the commitment and dedication to a life of service and sacrifice and are personal to the deceased. There are several different ways in which you can commemorate your service member and here are just a few ideas.

Consider Creating Personalized Dog Tags.

A wide range of commemorative dog tags are available, each of which are customizable to suit those you are commemorating, be that with a personalized message, or simply their name and date of passing.

Pay Tribute Through a Tattoo Marking.

Tattoos are a great way to commemorate a fallen veteran as they can be whatever you want them to be and mean whatever you want them to mean. You can get a replica of a tattoo the deceased had, or wanted but never got the chance to get, or create something entirely new that speaks to who they were to you as a person.

Ask for Letters from the Group they Served With.

Sometimes seeing your loved ones through someone else’s view can help ease through their passing, so having other veterans they served with write letters about them is another great way to memorialize their life. These letters could include thanks for their service, or even just day to day memories of what it was like to serve alongside them.

Present the Family with the National Flag.

To be presented with a flag is to be presented with a symbol of an entire country’s thanks and condolences. When that flag was the last thing covering a loved one’s final resting place, it specifically represents what that person did for the country and what it means to those that benefited from it.

Coordinate a parade or gathering.

Much akin to throwing a party, a march or parade is a public display of a loved one’s memorial. This may be more appropriate for someone who’s actions positively affected a relatively large amount of people, ranging anywhere from lending a hand where they could, to saving lives at the cost of their own. A march or parade would allow more people to attend and thus, pay their respects to the deceased.

Have a patch made in their honor.

A patch would serve much the same purpose as a tattoo, providing an artistic memoriam to the deceased. However, it would be more visible and relatively less complex, as it would be worn on the outside of clothing and ideally made from cloth. Designs for patches would more likely be simple symbols, such as their squad insignia, their name and rank, or the symbol of the military branch they were a part of.

Engrave a bullet with their name and fill with ashes.

If your loved one was serving in a combatant role, it may be appropriate to have bullet casings engraved for them. The casings can even serve as a sort of cremation urn, holding some of the deceased’s ashes in order to always keep them close.

Have a challenge coin created.

Challenge coins, or commemorative coins, are as you’d expect, customizable coins meant to serve as memorabilia. Creating a customized coin has the advantage of being able to have both text and a picture engraved onto something more permanent than a photo and is small enough that you can carry it with you anywhere. They are often made out of solid copper, contain a personalized image on the front and up to five lines of personalized text on the back, similar to this memorial coin.

Have custom pins made to show their service.

The family of the deceased will have received the personal effects of their fallen service member, which may include any medals earned in service. While these are fantastic to show, an entirely unique pin can be created to further memorialize the occasion. This is a great way to commemorate an individual’s personality, much like a tattoo or patch, and can easily be transferred from one garment to another.

Have custom artwork created.

If you’re looking for something a little more extravagant, or just something that can be kept in your home, you can look into having a piece of artwork created for your loved one. The biggest advantage to this is that it can be as intricate, and as large as you like, as you can commission a painting, or even something digital for the finest of details. Typically, these will be of your military personnel in action or adorned with pins and plaques.

Honoring A Life Of Service

Our military personnel deserve to be honored, remembered, and saluted for their bravery and sacrifices made during their service in the name of the United States. A military memorial is a fantastic way to pay tribute to them, showcase their service, rank, and story, while giving the immediate family a way to grieve.

While a military funeral is used to commemorate your fallen marine, soldier, sailor, coast guardsman, and airmen, choosing to personalize their honor is a great way to feel close to them and make the ceremony unique to them and you, the family.

[1] Significant Days and Observances for the Military, Operation We Are Here, www.operationwearehere.com/SignificantDaysObservances.html.

[2] National Cemetery Administration. “VA.gov: Veterans Affairs.” Military Funeral Honors, 31 May 2006, www.cem.va.gov/military_funeral_honors.asp.

[3] Herndon, Molly. “The Survivor Benefit Plan: Pros and Cons.” Military Families Learning Network, 7 Jan. 2020, www.militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org/2017/08/04/the-survivor-benefit-plan-pros-and-cons/.

[4] U.S. Navy. “Honoring Our Shipmates: The Heritage of the Military Funeral and Burial at Sea.” Navy Live, Navy Live, 27 May 2015, www.navylive.dodlive.mil/2015/05/23/honoring-our-shipmates-the-heritage-of-the-military-funeral-and-burial-at-sea/.

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February 11, 2020 by Frances Kay.