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COVID-19 casualty: No ‘Taps’ or honor guard for Missouri veteran at cemetery

A folded flag sits on a casket during ceremonial funeral training at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Feb. 22, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sadie Colbert/Released)

No military bugler sounded “Taps” for Raymond Boler, a soldier for nearly 40 years.

No honor guard stood among the white marble headstones of Leavenworth National Cemetery on Monday to fire the three-volley salute he had hoped would see him to his final rest.

It was not a uniformed soldier who presented his widow, his partner for 57 years, with the American flag, folded in a triangle, from a grateful nation.

“One of the guys at the office, a VA person at the cemetery office, he presented me with the flag, and that was it,” Francina Boler said on the afternoon after her husband, 72, was buried. “I’m really upset, but what can I do? The whole world’s got things going on. … We didn’t have a choice.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration, which runs 142 cemeteries across the county, felt it had little choice, either, in the face of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic.

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In keeping with social distancing recommendations by the federal Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, the administration has since March 23 limited the number of people allowed to attend funerals at Leavenworth and other national cemeteries to 10 or fewer. Buglers and honor guards and “committal” services have been suspended until the contagion passes.

“Typically, what happens at our cemeteries is that families are given about a half-hour to have a committal ceremony at a committal shelter,” said Les’ Melnyk, a spokesman for the cemetery administration in Washington, D.C.

In normal times, if a family requests it, a bugler from one of the military branches or from a veterans service organization will play taps. A flag will be folded and presented. A rifle detail will fire a three-round volley.

“All of that we have had to discontinue,” Melnyk said.

Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, one of some 20 post cemeteries run by the U.S. Army as opposed to the VA, has curtailed some rituals but continues offering “Taps” and rifle salutes and pall bearers.

“We are taking precautionary measures to ensure the health and safety of our service members, civilian personnel and funeral attendees,”Charles Alexander Jr., the superintendent at Arlington, said in a website press statement. He said the cemetery is taking guidance from the CDC and Department of Defense.

A man in uniform

The bodies or cremated remains of some 4.9 million veterans and their family members are interred in national cemeteries. Melnyk said about 500 funerals occur daily.

Raymond Boler wanted to be among them, having served in uniform for more than half of his life. Born on Sept. 5, 1947, in Independence, he graduated from Blue Springs High School in 1965 and soon joined the U.S. Air Force and served during the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1970 and later in the active reserves.

Afterward he would serve in the Missouri Army National Guard for 30 years and gain notoriety when, at age 60, he served in Kosovo in 2008 and 2009.

Francine Boler said she and her future husband began dating when she was 15 and he was 17.

“He was a man who knew what he wanted in life, which included me, thank goodness,” she said this week. “I’m still in shock that he’s gone.”

Over the course of his life, Boler, nicknamed “Racer Ray”, because of his love of snow skiing and water skiing, would serve as a pharmaceuticals representative. He sold real estate. He had two children and eight grandchildren.

For 11 years he drove the same school bus in the Blue Valley School district, with a U.S. Army emblem on his dashboard.

Then in June, before his 72nd birthday, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“We just found it by accident,” his wife said. Two surgeries followed. Eventually, he would be paralyzed along his left side and need a wheelchair. It all happened faster than anyone anticipated.

Boler died at his Olathe home on March 30. By then, Francina Boler knew that her husband would not get the honor guard she wanted because of the spreading coronavirus. The cemetery rules had changed.

“I tried to tell him,” she said.

Honoring a veteran

To honor him, the family held a drive-by memorial. Her husband’s casket, draped with the American flag, was set up outside their church, the Overland Park Church of Christ at 119th Street and Pflumm Road.

A table with this photos, medals and ribbons was set up alongside. Over one hour, more than 100 cars drove by to pay him respect.

“We kind of made it up,” Francina Boler said. A friend, she said, videotaped every passing car.

“He was a strong person, likable, humble,” Francina Boler said.

At Leavenworth and other national cemeteries, families, in lieu of the military ceremony, are given a different opportunity

“What we got that nobody else gets is that we watched the interment, which is pretty hard, let me tell you,” she said.

Melnyk said that once the threat of the coronavirus pandemic passes, all families such as Boler’s will be given the opportunity to have the full military ceremony at a later date, if that so choose.

“We get to go back at some time,” Francina Boler said, “but it’s kind of after the fact.”

Melnyk said it is never too late to honor those who served their country.

“I think every one of our veterans is important,” he said. “Honestly, they all deserve that. And their families deserve that. We will get to that point again. For families that have had to bury a veteran now, they will have that opportunity.

“That is a promise we’ve made.”

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© 2020 The Kansas City Star