FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. -- Archie Elam and Tony Hwang know the importance of properly paying respects to veterans at funerals. Now, the Commander of the Fairfield County branch of the Veterans for Foreign Wars and the state legislator from Fairfield have worked together with other state leaders to find the funds to do so.
With the state wrestling with a budget crisis, again, the budget chief for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy asked in November for each department to produce a 10 percent reduction in costs. The state faces a $1.3 billion budget shortfall in the next fiscal year.
The cuts could mean an end to rifle salutes by the Connecticut Honor Guard at military funerals. Three Guard members receive $50 each to deliver a volley of shots at veteran funeral services, and the state budgets approximately $326,000 for the honor.
Veterans responded angrily to the proposed cut in funding, and now Elam, Hwang and others are trying to find financial solutions. Hwang is a member of the state's Veterans’ Affair Committee.
“There is a moral responsibility that we have as a state government to recognize our men and women who go into battle and make sacrifices that benefit all of us,’’ said Hwang, a Republican who represents the 134th District towns of Easton, Fairfield, Newtown, Weston and a portion of Westport. “It is a higher order of respect to ensure veterans receive the highest respect and dignity.”
Elam said the Honor Guard has found financing to continue to pay stipends for the short term. “The wrestling match now is on how to get the rest of this figured out from here on,’’ Elam said.
Hwang said the state went through a similar crisis last year. He is adamant that the state continues to support the Guard and veterans.
“We have to prioritize what we value,’’ Hwang said. “We have to care for those that are most at risk and vulnerable. But it’s also a priority to respect our soldiers, and not just on the 4th of July and Memorial Day. We should pay our respects every single day. This country must not ever forget that we have a responsibility to remember and respect our veterans.”
Elam said communication could have mitigated concerns of veterans. “I wish the recognition and communication about this would have arrived in a little bit different way,’’ the Stamford Army veteran said. “We got that ‘Holy cow, the state won’t do veteran’s funerals any more.’ We had guys up on their horses ready to protest. My idea is to understand first, talk second. We didn’t do that.”
The firing salute is an important component of the funeral services for the families of veterans. Elam said discontinuing the salute is not a solution. “Failure to resolve this,’’ he said, “is not an option.”
Elam said veterans’ groups could develop fundraising measures to support the salute. The most important thing, both men agreed, is to find a long-term solution.
“This is not a $10 million line in the budget,’’ Elam said. “The numbers are not that big. It’s not like we’re changing half of the highway bill. This isn’t going to break the bank.”
“I feel very confident that a bipartisan approach within the legislative body will solve this,’’ Hwang said. “The standards we set are extremely important. The veterans need our support because they were there to support us.”
Elam, as one of the state’s leaders, heard from many upset veterans when the elimination of the Honor Guard was initially discussed. “It shouldn’t have gotten to this,’’ Elam said. “This is something that you put in a note, and then explain it to people. It got way out of focus.”