MARBLE FALLS, Texas (KXAN) — Despite the double lung transplant, Jeff Hoagland kept getting worse.
“We didn’t see as many smiles,” his wife, Ruthann, told KXAN, scrolling through photos of her late husband on her phone. The two met in high school in El Paso but didn’t marry until later in life. Jeff joined the Navy when he turned 18 in 1981 and only left when his lung disease got too bad in 2003.
He finally had the transplant doctors said he needed in 2015, and, at first, his health appeared to rebound. But medication he was taking to prevent his body from rejecting the organs destroyed his kidneys, and his body ended up rejecting the new lungs anyway.
Jeff died at the beginning of April, less than a week shy of his and Ruthann’s wedding anniversary.
“In fact, I told him,” Ruthann said, “‘If you can hang on a few more days, it’ll be seven years.’ And he just couldn’t. He fought a good fight.”
The two were living in an RV park outside of Marble Falls. It was their home base after making the decision to get rid of many of their possessions and live a life of travel and exploration. That was the park where Ruthann held Jeff’s funeral service, surrounded by friends and family, with military honors provided by the Highland Lakes Honor Guard.
“I think I can safely say the honor guard made the whole celebration of life as special as it was and as meaningful as it was,” she said.
The all-volunteer group provides services to veterans, mainly in Burnet and Llano counties, free of charge. Commander Charlie Taylor started the organization 13 years ago.
“We’ve done 545 funerals in that length of time,” he said.
The idea came to him while he was at a friend’s funeral. Three service members had been sent to perform the memorial duties, including folding and presenting the flag and playing “Taps,” and while he appreciated them being there, Taylor said he thought veterans deserved more.
The Navy vet got a group together and got certified by the U.S. armed services to perform military honors at funerals. But the tradition he’s kept up is fading.
“At one time, we had 25 members, but some have moved, some have died,” he said. “So we’re down to about a dozen people now.”
It’s difficult to pull together enough people for the same rudimentary service he watched at his friend’s funeral, he said, let alone the eight or ten members he likes to provide families. The last three summers, he’s had to suspend operations entirely while members take breaks and travel.
At 74 years old, he’s one of the younger veterans involved. As more members fight health issues of their own, and as Taylor starts to travel more, he said he’ll likely disband the honor guard entirely by the end of the year unless he can find new, younger vets to take the baton.
He needs to find more people like Tom Hauer, a friend of the Hoaglands and attendee at Jeff’s funeral.
“I saw what they were doing and talked to Charlie Taylor, the commander, for a while and realized how challenged they are finding people to help them,” Hauer told KXAN, “and said, ‘Well, you got one more.'”
It was an easy decision for Hauer, an Army veteran who served during Vietnam. His dad served in World War II, and three of his children joined up as well, so military honor means a lot to him.
“Every time you go to a ceremony, you learn something new, not only about that person but about yourself,” he said. “It’s time for some of the younger generation of military veterans to come in and join our organization.”
Ruthann Hoagland hopes more people join up, too. It meant a lot to her to hear the explanation of what each fold of the flag meant as the honor guard did its duty.
“What they do means so much to, say, somebody like me who’s lost a veteran,” she said. “If this thing has to be disbanded because of lack of participation, that’s just a travesty. That’s just heartbreaking.”
Any veterans in the Burnet/Llano County area who want to inquire about joining the Highland Lakes Honor Guard can call Charlie Taylor at 325-248-0450, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.