Fewer veterans answering call to ceremonial duty in Merced, California

Most of the men in the Merced County honor guard have either died or become so crippled they can't make it to the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery to salute fellow veterans being buried.

That's what its commander, Richard Clerkin, says. It sounds gruff, but for men such as Clerkin, who've dealt with death all their lives, it's just the way it is.

Sure, plenty of the men fight to stay involved with the group for as long as they can.

There was Korean War vet Louis Gonzales, who made it out nearly every month as he battled pancreatic cancer. He told the men the pain would ache more if he sat at home, thinking of the unit without him firing off a 21-round salute.

After about 18 months of that, the men loaded their rifles and took aim in his honor.

For more than three decades, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Honor Guard have been donning their white shirts, black slacks and olive-drab garrison caps, and shouldering their rifles to pay final homage to fellow servicemen and women.

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