WASHINGTON (AP) — The all-volunteer rifle squad that George J. Weiss Jr. started three decades ago has delivered the final salute at more than 56,400 U.S. military burials.
Weiss, a World War II veteran, has made it his mission to provide military honors to deceased veterans at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday was to recognize him and 12 other people with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest honor that can be conferred on an American civilian.
Weiss' desire to start the volunteer rifle squad came after a friend died in 1977 and the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post could not provide the military honors at the burial. He pledged to start a memorial squad after he retired. And when he ended his 30-year career as a utility repairman with Ford Motor Co., Weiss formed a memorial squad of six people. Today, it is comprised of 130 men.
"We don't know 99 percent of the people we're burying — they're strangers," Weiss said. "But still, we've all been in the military, and we try to take care of each other."
This year's Citizens Medal winners have helped the poor and advocated for deaf children. One honoree is focused on conservation, while another helps young pregnant women with educational training. They also include a Colombian immigrant who regularly feeds about 130 people, and a Sept. 11, 2001 widow who has reached out to help widows in Afghanistan.
President Richard M. Nixon established the award in 1969 as a tribute to exemplary service by any citizen. The medal has been handed out to a range of people, from actress Elizabeth Taylor to sports legend Muhammad Ali.
Obama looked to the public to find the winners of this year's medals — the first Citizens Medals he will give out as president. He asked people to nominate individuals who had helped their communities or country.
The Sept. 11 attacks left Susan Retik widowed. But she turned her tragedy into hope for widows in Afghanistan — where the al-Qaida planners of the terror strikes found harbor.