National Cemetery Volunteer Does Double Duty

Volunteer Richard Burns plays two roles at Riverside National Cemetery.

CONTRIBUTED COPY The Press Enterprise

Richard Burns wears two hats at Riverside National Cemetery and they’re both the white peaked cap of a United States Marine.

He dons it three days a week in his role as the Family Assistance Volunteer at the cemetery.

Several times a month, he also wears it as part of his Marine Corps dress blue uniform which still fits almost as well as when he separated from the Corps in 1962 as he joins the other members of the Memorial Honor Detail Semper Fi #1 team to provide military honors for veterans being interred at the cemetery.

The Family Assistance Volunteer position was the brainchild of cemetery Director Dean Moline. Because the cemetery averages 35 services a day, Moline believed it would be helpful to have a recognizable presence roaming in the cemetery’s six main staging areas to answer questions and provide guidance for the high volume of daily visitors. He reached out to Dan Smith, chairman of the Riverside National Cemetery Memorial Honor Detail for volunteers. Burns volunteered and got the job.

Burns is fairly typical of 470 honor detail members who provide honors at Riverside. He retired from a good career looking forward to not working anymore; but soon discovered that not working didn’t mean not doing things. Although he is active in the Masons and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, he needed more to do. That’s when he decided to investigate the cemetery. He lives just a few miles away in Orangecrest.

Although there are a few high school Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps teams, the honor detail is comprised of mostly retirees but also veterans who just enjoy putting on the uniform and honoring their fellow veterans.

By the mid-1990s, the closure or down-sizing of many Southern California military installations was making it harder for veteran families to find units to perform military honors at the veteran committal services at Riverside.

The Memorial Honor Detail was formed at Riverside to provide these services. Within a year, three teams had formed.

Over the years, the detail has grown to as many as 500 volunteers from all over Southern California, organized into nearly 50 teams ranging from a handful of JROTC cadets to Semper Fi #1 with 70 members, including kilted pipers and drummers.

These teams have provided honors for an estimated 30,000 veteran’s services since 1996. Memorial Honor Detail teams are all-volunteer.

“They’re here because they want to honor their fellow veterans,” said honor detail board chairman and retired Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Dan Smith.

Smith said that the aging of the honor detail force has caused the total number of volunteers to drop to about 470.

“Some of our older members have had to stop participating because of their health and the Junior ROTC cadets eventually graduate and their teams are disbanded.”

As a result, Smith is always looking for groups interested in forming new teams and individuals looking to join existing teams.

For Burns, it’s not only about the honor, but the human contact.

“I love interacting with the people; answering their questions and clearing up any misconceptions they might have about what is about to take place,” he said.

“They come here for what may be the worst day of their life and I have a chance to make things a little easier for them. It’s a great feeling.”