Memo to airmen: if you want full military honors when you head for that big hangar in the sky, it's best to pass away while on active duty.
Turns out the service made 21-gun salutes optional for veterans' funerals back in 2013. Local installations were given the option of providing full military honors--including the three-volley firing--if they had enough money in their budgets. The new policy (a result of sequestration and funding cuts) reduced the minimum number of airmen in funeral details from seven to two.
Details from Air Force Times:
"..when the Air Force changed funerary honors in 2013, it left the
decision up to unit commanders on whether they could still support a
full funeral detail. The 15th Wing [at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii] was able to provide a seven-person
detail longer than some other units until, it appears, the money ran
In 2013, then-Capt. Erika Yepsen said that tight budgets were at the heart of the decision.
Air Force will save more than $1 million in material and travel
expenses [because of this decision] alone,” Yepsen said. “Although we
don’t have an exact calculation for what we will be saving on military
personnel expenses, we will realize a substantial savings.”
Under the new policy, an American flag is folded and presented to the family and "Taps," is played (typically on an electronic bugle), but many Air Force vets will not receive a 21-gun salute.
Airmen who die while still in uniform (rightly) receive full military honors: a 20-person detail of six pall bearers, eight-person firing party, a
bugler, four-person color guard and a detail officer or noncommissioned
officer in charge. Air Force retirees apparently fall somewhere in the middle; if internment is near a military base, there's a better chance their service will be staffed by a seven-member detail and they may receive full military honors, particularly if they retired in the grade of O-6 or higher.
If you're among the large group of military retirees who choose burial away from a military base--or didn't reach the exalted rank of Colonel--well, you can depart this mortal coil, secure in the knowledge that you helped the Air Force save a cool $1 million a year.
Thankfully, the down-sized honors program does not apply to burials at Arlington National Cemetery. And, as far as we can tell, no one has asked the Air Force about the number of retired general officers who were laid to rest without a 21-gun salute.