SERGEANT BLUFF — Of the military traditions performed at a veteran’s graveside service, the 21-gun salute grabs everyone’s attention.
The three volleys of shots noticeably cause a flinch or two among some of those in attendance.
Often unnoticed is what happens after those shots have been fired. The spent shell casings are collected and later presented to the family, one last symbol of their veteran’s service.
It’s a symbol that Vince Bugg felt could be better presented.
When Bugg became sergeant-at-arms at George Nelson American Legion Post 662 in Sergeant Bluff and took on the responsibility of organizing for veteran funerals, he thought there must be a more respectful way to present those shells to families. Carrying them in cupped hands, then handing them to the family didn’t seem right.
“It seemed awkward to drop a whole handful of shells into their hands,” Bugg said.
He turned to plastic bags, but that didn’t seem very fitting, either.
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Then he thought of the small American flags retired each year after spending the previous 12 months marking veterans’ graves. Perhaps they could serve another purpose rather than being burned with other retired flags.
“I had all these flags that were in good shape and it seemed like a waste to throw them away,” Bugg said.
He tinkered with ideas, taking the old flags and folding them this way and that. He settled on a design in which he folded the flag over, sewed three sides shut, then added a Velcro fastener on the open end. When finished, he had a small bag that held all 21 shells — much more honorable than a plastic sack.
“These flags have all stood watch over a fallen serviceman before. Now they have a second watch to hold a serviceman’s shells,” Bugg said.
Bugg writes the servicemember’s name and service information on the flag’s stripes with a stencil and pen. He also slips in a list of the names of the firing squad members and the person who played Taps, as well as his business card informing the family that, if they wish, he can provide photos of the squad firing the shots at the service.
He presents the bag to the family at the conclusion of the service, informing them that the three volleys fired during the ceremony stand for honor, duty and country.
“I say your loved one has fulfilled all those obligations,” said Bugg, a retired firefighter at the 185th Air Refueling Wing, Iowa Air National Guard, in which he served for 21 years.
Bugg presents the bag with the stars facing up, then flips it over to reveal the name and service information of the deceased veteran. In some cases, the information he’s written down might be more than the servicemember ever revealed to family members.
“It’s just a little more something for the family,” he said. “It think this is a little more touching. It’s got the history and the names.”
For more than two years, Bugg has been making the bags for every service the Sergeant Bluff Legion post takes part in, plus others who request them. He made bags for two Woodbury County men who died on board the battleship USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor and whose remains were recently identified and returned home for burial.
Bugg urges younger veterans to get involved with the American Legion or other service organizations so there will be enough people to fill firing squads and carry out other military rites at veterans’ funerals in the future. He’s shared his shell bags idea with other posts as an easy way to add a touch more honor to a veteran’s funeral.
“This guy has done so much for his country. I want to do as much for him as possible,” Bugg said.
Long after the echoes of the firing squad’s shots have faded, the shells remain wrapped in the American flag and held in honor, much like the memory of the veteran they represent.