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Witness Testimony of Mr. Jay Sanders, Senior Vice Commander, Veterans of Foreign Wars, District 4

My name is Jay Sanders. I am the incoming Commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (“VFW”) District 4. The VFW District 4 is a nonprofit, volunteer veterans organization that oversees the 17 VFW Posts in Houston. Approximately 4,000 veterans are members of VFW District 4. Previously, I served as the Senior Vice Commander and the Junior Vice Commander of VFW District 4.  I am also currently serving as the Commander of VFW Post 912. I have also served as the Junior Vice Commander of VFW Post 912 and as the Post Chaplain.  I am a three-time winner of the National-Aide-de-Camp, which is an award given for outstanding service to the VFW.

I am a Navy Veteran; I served in the Navy from 1960 through 1964.  I served as a Machinist Mate 3rd Class and served on the U.S.S. Bonhommie Richard CVA-31, an attack carrier. I received my eligibility for the VFW from August through October of 1964 where I served in the Tonkin Gulf Incident.  I received the National Defense Citation Award from the Navy.  I also received the Expeditionary Ribbon from the Navy.

For at least 20 years, the VFW District 4 Honor Guard, at the request of the family of the deceased, has honored veterans by performing the VFW Burial Ritual during private funeral services at Houston National Cemetery. VFW District 4 follows the official VFW Burial Ritual, which was written and approved by the VFW National Council of Administration.  The VFW Burial Ritual includes a pre-written prayer by the VFW District 4 Honor Guard Chaplain and religious speech by the VFW Honor Guard Commander, which includes references to God. 

Prior to 2011, National Cemetery officials never asked the VFW District 4 Honor Guard to remove any parts of its ritual, prohibited the honor guard from performing the entire ritual unless the families requested it, or required that special prayers be submitted to cemetery employees. Furthermore, the VFW ritual was never before divided between so-called “core elements” and “additions to the core elements.” Prior to 2011, the government never interfered with private decisions made between the family, the funeral home, and the VFW District 4 Honor Guard. 

In early 2011, the Director of the Houston National Cemetery met with the VFW District 4 Line Officers in her office. During the course of the meeting, the National Cemetery Director told us that she wanted the Department of Defense burial team to train the VFW burial team so that every burial team was trained the same way.  The National Cemetery Director then stated that the VFW District 4 Honor Guard could no longer perform the entire VFW ritual, but could only do what she described as the “four core elements,” the folding of the flag, the presentation of the flag, the rifle salute, and the playing of Taps. This removed all of the religious speech and references to God from the VFW Burial Ritual. The National Cemetery Director further stated that the VFW District 4 Honor Guard members could not provide texts of prayer to the family for consideration. She stated that if family members wanted a certain prayer read, they would have to submit the prayer to the cemetery in writing and cemetery officials would then give the prayer to the VFW District 4 Honor Guard to read. 

In March 2011, the National Cemetery Director issued a policy entitled “Houston National Cemetery Honor Guard Guidelines.” Among other things, this policy stated that funeral military honors should consist only of the core elements: the folding of the flag, the presentation of the flag, the playing of Taps, and the rifle salute. It further stated that additions to these core elements can only be made at the request of the deceased’s survivors. The policy also stated that if the family has a member of the clergy provide a religious service, then the honor guard team is not allowed to include religious elements, such as readings from scripture or prayer.  It also stated that volunteer honor guards shall not provide the texts of any recitations to the deceased’s survivors for consideration.

On the same day the policy was issued, the National Cemetery Director held training in the chapel for the VFW District 4 Honor Guard, which performs the Burial Ritual during the funerals. I noticed that the chapel was filled with boxes and appeared like it was being used for storage.  During the training, Junior Vice Commander of the Honor Guard, Nobleton Jones asked if he could recite the following while handing the shell casings to the family:

On behalf of the United States of America, a grateful nation, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, I present you with these shell casings from the shots that were fired to honor our departed comrade. We ask that God grant you and your family grace, mercy, and peace.

The National Cemetery Director  stated “no.”  Junior Vice Commander Jones then asked if he was allowed to hand the shell casings to the family.  The National Cemetery Director said “no” unless the family specifically asked for the shell casings.  The National Cemetery Director  further stated that Mr. Jones was not allowed to have any direct contact with the family.

A few weeks later, the National Cemetery Director  met with VFW District 4 line officers in her office. During the course of the meeting, the National Cemetery Director  instructed the VFW District 4 line officers that that the VFW District 4 Honor Guard could not perform the entire ritual, unless specifically requested by the family in writing.  The National Cemetery Director  also stated that if the family wanted a VFW Honor Guard member to read any special prayer during the service, that the family would have to submit the text of the prayer to her, and then she would provide that prayer to the VFW Honor Guard. One of the VFW District 4 line officers, recognizing that these conditions are not included in the honor guard guidelines, requested to see this policy in writing. The National Cemetery Director agreed to provide these policies to us in writing, but never produced a copy of these policies.

These oral and written policies implemented in 2011 were not only unprecedented, but they substantially interfered with the private funeral services of our deceased veterans.  What is spoken during a private funeral service is a very private and personal decision that the government has no right to interfere with.  The families of the deceased veterans have been thankful and touched by the VFW Burial Ritual. It is a great honor for a veteran to have the VFW Burial Ritual performed, and the government has no business removing the religious portions of this nearly 100-year old burial ritual.