George Bean, 78, stands amid a sea of headstones at the Maine Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery on Mount Vernon Road in Augusta. He’s dressed in a crisp white shirt, his American Legion cap sitting firmly on his head. He barely glances at the note card in his gloved hand as he recites the speech he’s given hundreds of times at hundreds of funeral services.

“We come to honor the memory,” Bean begins, “of one who offered his service to God and country. Because of him our lives are free.”

The funeral is for Bruce Pray, a veteran from Winthrop who died of cancer in July at age 64. Pray’s widow, Penny, sits in a folding chair surrounded by family and friends.

She listens as Bean finishes his reading and as Keith Estabrook, 88, says a prayer. Bean and Estabrook are members of the Kennebec County Veterans Honor Guard.

Since 2003, the honor guard – an all-volunteer band of brothers and sisters, the youngest of whom is 65 – has provided funeral honors at the burials of more than a thousand Maine veterans.

The military provides an active duty serviceman or woman to present a flag to next of kin and to play taps at the committal service for veterans. In Kennebec County, George Bean and company do the rest: a prayer, a short speech, a ceremonial volley by riflemen.

“It’s completely free,” Bean says. “We don’t charge a nickel. We have gone to Steuben, Denmark, Bar Harbor. We try to stick to Kennebec County, but how do you say no?”

Penny Pray says it meant the world to her to have the honor guard at her husband’s funeral – because it would have meant the world to him.

“He served in Vietnam,” Pray says, “and was one of the soldiers that never felt any gratitude for his service.”

This, she says, is the best kind of thank-you.

“I’ve had so many of our friends say, ‘That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.'”

Bean, who lives in Sidney, is the honor guard commander. He used to have a roster of more than 20, but that number is dwindling fast. Illness and old age are taking a toll.

“Everybody can’t make it all the time,” he says. “We have one fella, a chaplain, who can only make it Monday, Wednesday and Friday, ’cause Tuesday and Thursday he has to go for dialysis.”

When a funeral director calls, Bean rallies the troops.

“We call and they come,” says Leon Roberts, co-owner of Knowlton Hewins Roberts Funeral Homes in Augusta and Winthrop, “no matter what, holidays, whenever.”

Roberts has been in the funeral business for a lot of years. But he still gets choked up when he watches these men and women offer the gift of their time and effort. “Powerful” is the word he uses.

“It’s hard sometimes for us to fight back the emotion,” Roberts says.

It’s hard sometimes for honor guard members, too. Especially at services for young veterans – and those for the forgotten.

“I can recall one funeral,” says sergeant-at-arms Pat Eisenhart, 72, “it was snowing out and there was a good wind going, and we were standing there and there were just three people.”

That, Eisenhart says, must be a lonely feeling for a loved one.

“At least we can be there for the deceased,” he says.

At 88, Keith Estabrook is the oldest member of the Kennebec County Veterans Honor Guard. Estabrook was 18 years old – and had never left the town of Litchfield – when he was sent to the front line in France during World War II. He saw service and sacrifice firsthand. He believes every veteran deserves a final farewell from his comrades.

“At least it shows them that we care.” Estabrook says. “We care what happens to our buddies.”

They worry, though, about what will happen when they’re no longer able to provide this service. Local funeral directors worry about that, too.

“I just think they’re getting up there in age,” says Leon Roberts, “and it will be a sad day when the time comes and we can’t call them.”

But for now, they’re ready and willing – for one simple reason.

“(We) do it because they earned it,” Bean says.

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