Changes to Veteran Funerals: a Great Example of How “More With Less” Happens


A couple of years ago, the Air Force pulled the pin on a delay-fuzed outrage bomb. Recently, that bomb exploded.

Veterans and their families have become increasingly irate as it has become widely known that the service no longer commits itself to firing a ceremonial three-gun rifle volley at funerals. It’s a sensitive issue for grieving families often caught by surprise that this emotionally important element of a last sendoff is no longer provided.

The policy dates to a 2013 change to the Air Force’s mortuary affairs instruction. Under the pressures of sequestration, service leaders dissolved a longstanding commitment to provide 7-person Honor Guard details at retiree funerals, reverting to the 2-person requirement found in the US Code.

“The Air Force will save more than $1 million in material and travel expenses,” said spokeswoman Capt. Erika Yepsen at the time. The reduction to 2-person teams made the provision of the ceremonial volley — which requires 7 airmen firing three shots each — impossible.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, who came to her position several months after the change, has recently become aware of the growing disquiet among veteran groups over the policy. In response, she’s begun engaging through social media to provide reassurance.

In a January 4th post to her Facebook page, James said:

“As we enter 2016, I want to thank our AF Honor Guard Airmen who will again this year deliver final honors for our military veterans and retirees. While the DoD and Air Force policy only requires a two-person team, our units have been and will continue to do their utmost to meet the wishes of the family. To help families and our units, I’ve asked my staff to clarify the spectrum of support authorized and share this information with Commanders across the force. Understanding the tremendous demands on our Airmen, we’re strongly encouraging commanders to provide a gun volley to those who are eligible and to partner with all the veteran’s service organizations in their regions to support the family’s wishes. If units are unable to provide more than two, wing commanders must be informed prior to the ceremony. We’re stretched thin, but this is a priority–we will continue to honor all our veterans and the sacrifices they have given for our Nation.” [emphasis added].

This sounds nice, but it doesn’t fix anything. SecAF isn’t changing the policy. To do that would require new resources she doesn’t have. “Clarifying the spectrum of support” isn’t going to do anything, whatever it means. Commanders aren’t idiots who need things clarified. They understand what they’re required to provide and they’re providing it, which is exactly how the problem has become manifest in the first place.

What she’s doing is attempting to put out a political fire by representing that the Air Force will more often support 7-person Honor Guard requests. To make that representation come true, she’s putting new pressure on wing commanders to squeeze more manpower out of their already chronically undermanned organizations. The Secretary “strongly encouraging commanders” is the functional equivalent of a non-negotiable order.

This is how “more with less” happens. The Air Force has gotten 19,446 airmen smaller since the 2013 policy change was enacted. It hasn’t stopped doing anything, and has taken up a new airpower-centric mission against Islamic State. Service officials have conceded recently that they don’t have enough people to do the job.

And yet, when confronted with a specific mismatch between manpower and requirements, the Secretary’s “fix” is to turn the screws a little tighter on wing commanders and force them to re-shuffle priorities to somehow generate Honor Guard capacity without more people or corresponding relief from other requirements.

Secretary James undoubtedly realizes that in a resource deficient environment, many things that are actually mandatory will not get done because organizations will run out of capacity before accomplishing everything. This means anything optional is simply not going to happen. A plan without resources is an illusion.

This explains why she’s tacitly mandating that this particular requirement get accomplished rather than adopting a soft position leaving commanders free to exercise genuine discretion without fear of being second-guessed. For her to say “[w]e’re stretched thin, but this is a priority” is a way of preemptively discarding the “we’re stretched thin” argument, which is a way of pre-empting any resource-based back-talk from commanders in the field.

I offered Secretary James a suggestion for how to address the problem. Here it is:

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She didn’t respond.

She did find time to respond to another commenter with the following remark:

“I want to reassure you that the gun salute has not been removed from funeral honors for our veterans. In fact we encourage commanders to provide more than the required two persons whenever possible to ensure a three-shot volley is done according to the wishes of the family.”

This is a misrepresentation. The gun salute was removed from funeral honors when the resources were stripped out by the 2013 policy change. That’s what allowed the service to crow pridefully about saving $1M. To say that it remains an option is deeply misleading. It’s only an option if commanders have the manning to make it happen. They don’t. If they did, they’d be doing it already without needing to be “encouraged.”

It would be interesting to get Gen. Mark Welsh’s take on this. In the latter of half of 2013, as the policy change gutting veteran funerals was being implemented, Welsh was busy reinstating the Tops in Blue traveling show choir, which had been sidelined the first part of the year (appropriately) due to budget constraints.

There’s no such thing as free labor, Madam Secretary. If you expect something to happen dependably and professionally, you must make it mandatory and provide the manpower for it to be done. Asking commanders in the field to adjust and reallocate already insufficient manpower to a constantly shifting collection of co-equal priorities is dishonest. Trying to take credit for fixing something by making a Facebook post about it is even worse. All of this is bad leadership, and the effects of it eventually come to rest as heavy weights strapped onto the backs of the airmen trying to make airpower happen.

“More with less” is strangling airpower capability, and with it the morale and commitment needed to sustain a great Air Force. In this case, our honor and image as a service are also implicated, as the nation comes to realize that we’ve mismanaged ourselves into a position where we can no longer ceremonially affirm the memory and dignity of those who served.

The question isn’t how to fix this one problem. The question is how to make the service sustainable so commanders can keep problems like this from ever materializing in the first place. But in the meantime, what is totally unacceptable is selling the impression that we have enough manpower to fix problems created by senior leaders. We need less rhetoric and “encouragement” and more action to reduce workload while providing resources.

It’s time to put an end to more with less. Indeed, it’s time to do less with more.

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