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Veterans, supporters push back against restricting funeral salute

Beloit Daily News - 3/8/2017

BELOIT - Veterans groups and concerned city residents vow to keep pressure on city officials over the issue of honor guard burial practices.

Two veterans groups contested a Beloit Police Department decision to cite an often-overlooked ordinance at a veteran's funeral on Presidents Day.

Veterans and concerned residents packed City Hall Monday evening to speak during the public comments. Honor guard commander Steve Mayfield said he and other group leaders from the Marine Corps League 2306 and Veterans of Foreign Wars will meet with Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski today to discuss the issue, following meetings last week with command staff regarding the firearms ordinance and how it relates to firing the customary, 21-volley salute by the honor guard.

The groups claim police asked them to forgo the traditional salute ahead of a veteran's funeral at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Feb. 20. Some of the longest-tenured members of the group have been involved with honor guard duties since 1968, and could not recall a time when they were asked to stand down. Police ordered the service be moved away from the church and across the street.

Zibolski is also set to meet with area funeral directors and representatives from the VFW to discuss ways to coordinate public safety needs to address the situation. Zibolski has cited how the sound of weapons being fired in residential or high-traffic areas could cause concerns over public safety.

The 21-volley salute is allowed at various cemeteries in the city, and the terms of the current ordinance have not changed. Approval and coordination of a space outside of city cemeteries must be sought and is subject to denial by the city, according to Beloit city statute.

Alternative locations are always recommended, according to a social media post by the city in response to the wave of backlash against the issue.

The council took no action on the issue Monday evening.

Daley Murphy Wisch Funeral Home Director Jerry Murphy said most funeral proceedings are being held outside of area cemeteries because use of cremation continues to rise. Sixty veterans were given funeral services through DMW in 2016 and 37 of the 60 had been conducted at a church, funeral home or at a private location, according to funeral home data.

Murphy said he could not recall once in his 40 years of service in Beloit of having an honor guard being asked to forgo the traditional salute.

"This is all about respect and honoring each veteran correctly," Murphy said. "They are honoring people that gave their time and lives for serving for their country."

City Council President Dave Luebke said the city will continue to honor veterans in Beloit, and that the 21-volley salute would not be hindered from area cemeteries. Luebke broke protocol Monday evening ahead of public comments to address the near-capacity crowd at the meeting.

"The salute is a dignified and honorable way to honor our veterans, and that will not change," Luebke said, after recalling memories of his father, a World War II veteran, participating in city events in the 1950s where the 21-volley salute was used.

Councilors Regina Dunkin and Mark Preuschl spoke out in favor of supporting area veterans and Preuschl went as far to apologize on behalf of the city for the confusion and furor over the issue. The council could review the ordinance in the future, Preuschl added, and consider all comments in future discussions.

A number of speakers supporting the veterans groups challenged police attempting to enforce the firearms ordinance against honor guard duties. Multiple speakers said the controlled volley of honorary gunfire is far different from handgun discharges. Others asked the department to review a possible amendment of the ordinance to allow for the capped, blank-firing weapons used by the honor guard to be excluded from the ordinance.

The Department of Veterans Affairs cites the salute as common administrative code for all honorably discharged service members, according to its military funeral honors program.

Zibolski said the ordinance prohibits the firing of any weapon within city limits, and that conducting the honorary firings in some city areas could stand as a possible risk to the general peace of a neighborhood.

Police said the firing of rifles near populated housing, busy arterial streets and intersections would not be allowed, because it could pose a public safety hazard. The department also said drivers heading down a busy street or through a busy intersection could speed up, stop or swerve if firearms were discharged as part of a salute, possibly causing an accident.

Multiple veterans spoke out against the department's citing of dangers to public safety against allowing the honor guard proceedings. Before the meeting, some even joked about how Beloit Memorial High School should remove its starter's pistol from the beginning of each race.

"I think it's wrong to take the 21-gun salute out of honoring our veterans," said resident and relative to multiple veterans Prisha Gustina.

The VFW and MCL bring eight members to a veteran's funeral when requested, and rotate with a total of 13 volunteers. The salute is done by capped, blank-firing weapons.

 
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