WASHINGTON CROSSING >> While the nation and the region pause this weekend to remember and to honor the nation’s fallen soldiers, for one group of individuals that mission is a daily routine.
The Guardians of the National Cemetery at Washington Crossing keep Memorial Day and Veterans Day close to their hearts year round as they pay final homage to veterans interred on this piece of hollowed ground in Upper Makefield.
Standing at attention, their uniforms freshly pressed and immaculate, they lift their rifles into the air breaking the peaceful surroundings with three rounds of fire.
Moments later the strains of TAPS whispers its solemn salute through rows of whitewashed gravestones standing at attention in the vastness of the Cemetery.
The scene is repeated up to nine times a day, five days a week at the cemetery as veterans are laid to rest here by a grateful nation.
The Guardians of the National Cemetery haven’t missed the burial of a veteran here since the Washington Crossing National Cemetery opened a little more than a decade ago amid the rolling countryside of Upper Makefield and on the very land where patriots fought the American Revolution.
In total they have rendered honors to more than 16,000 veterans and counting, granting them the last modem of respect with a final salute for their service to the nation.
It doesn’t matter how big or how small the gathering, the Guardians bring dignity to each and every serviceman and woman buried on this hollowed ground.
Former Marine James Fitzgerald of Newtown joined the Guardians after retiring from the Department of Homeland Security. He is now among the youngest members at the age of 56 in a group whose average age is 74.
Fitzgerald enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 1983 after the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. He attended Marine Corps Boot Camp at Parris Island, SC. after which he was stationed in Japan and Camp Lejeune, NC. He graduated from Rutgers University and served 26 years with the US Department of Homeland Security before retiring in 2019.
“I joined the Guardians because I wanted to to continue to serve my country and honor my fellow veterans as they are laid to rest,” said Fitzgerald.
He’s also a member of the Joint Veterans Service Organization. The JVSO, when requested, provides full military honors to veterans interned in cemeteries not overseen by the National Cemetery Association of the Veterans Administration in the Philadelphia area.
“I’m very proud of my Marine Corps service and I figured what better way to continue to represent the Marine Corps and help honor veterans,” said Fitzgerald of the Guardians.
He’s now the group’s training officer, a team leader and an armorer, who takes care of and cleans the guns after they are fired. He has also taken on the task of helping to recruit new members and to boost the ranks of the Guardians to ensure that veterans continue to be buried with proper respect and thanks rendered.
“It’s important work because each veteran deserves honor and respect when they are laid to rest,” said Fitzgerald. “I served four years and fortunately not in armed combat, but for me this is special and it’s meaningful that we honor those who served no matter how long they have served.”
The Guardians provide a 10 member Honor Guard Monday through Friday at the cemetery which consists of a Firing Party Leader, seven riflemen firing three volleys, a flag bearer for the appropriate branch of the military and a bugler who plays TAPS. They also fold and present the American flag to the family when a military or reserve honor guard is unavailable.
In addition, on the fourth Thursday of the month the Guardians render military honors during memorial services for the “Unattended.” These often very moving ceremonies frequently attended by the public honor veterans who are directly buried during the month at the cemetery with no family or friends in attendance.
The Guardians also play a role in special occasions at the cemetery such as Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day.
Anyone can be a member of the Guardians, however only honorably discharged military veterans can be part of the Honor Guard. The exception is for buglers and all others who can play TAPS. They do not need to be veterans.
A typical Guardian Honor Guard member is a retired veteran who has the time to dedicate at least one day a week as a member of an Honors Team.
“These veterans are highly trained in the ceremonial aspects of their mission and wear the Guardian uniform with great pride," said Fitzgerald. "They view each service they perform with the highest level of dignity and respect for each and every veteran burial.”
Members of the honor guard are from every branch of the service. Each mission (interment) is provided the exact same ceremony regardless of the weather conditions five days a week, five hours a day and rendering military honors as many as nine times a day.
“No matter how long someone served, they deserve the honor and respect when they are laid to rest,” said Fitzgerald. “If you serve and are willing to die for this country, that’s important and it should be recognized.”
For more information about the Guardians or to join its ranks, visit guardiansoftheNationalCemetery.org