SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. – “FIRING PARTY! TENCH HUT! READUP HACE! … Not quite up to par. Start over.” That was about the tempo of my first week assigned to the 4th Fighter Wing Base Honor Guard. Welcome to the life of the new guy.
I remember stepping through the front door of the honor guard building my first day of training, my mind bubbling with curiosity. What are the Airmen like here? What would the training be like? Is it difficult, and if so, how challenging will it be for me? I wouldn’t say I was stressed, just worried about stepping into the unknown.
It was my first time away from my primary duty at public affairs and in a new environment with new faces, personalities and tasks. I was prepared to be there for three months as part of my contract, which requires me to rotate between honor guard and my duty section every three months for an entire year.
I stepped inside and found myself in a giant, open room with mirrors on one wall, chairs against another, a huge board filled with names and cities and some ceremonial garments on display. I immediately assumed this was where the training would be held and where the guardsmen practiced. It was there I was acquainted with my trainer, who verified that the room was the training room. Shortly thereafter, my developmental training began.
My trainer described everything in such a clear and easy to understand manner. Some things I caught on to rather quickly, other things not so much, like timing and motions of rifles for a firing party. I had learned a number of things, such as facing movements, flag folding and rifle techniques, to name a few. I did my best to put forth excellence in all I did. Luckily, I had a full two weeks before I actually started performing honor guardsman duties. During this period I polished my skills, became an official base honor guard member and received my badge and gear. Holding it all in my hands for the first time was surreal, and even more so when I first wore it all.
Now that I made it through the training, what’s next? What exactly does someone do at the base honor guard?
Primarily, we present the colors for official functions, perform retreat Monday through Friday and render military honors at funerals for veterans and retirees of the United States Armed Forces. Everywhere we went, we represented the Air Force as a whole, upholding the traditions of the honor guard with pride.
I was quickly tasked with my first detail, a funeral in Eastern N.C., where I would fold the flag before it was presented. While waiting for our cue to conduct the military honors, I absorbed the scene, taking in the full effect of the retiree’s passing. Many family members displayed their emotions, while others too deep in thought showed nothing on the outside.
Was I nervous? Just a little bit. However, when we were cued to perform, we executed flawlessly. Everything came together in that moment, we were in unison, our movements were crisp and I was filled with pride.
The 4th FW honor guard is responsible for funerals in North Carolina, Virginia and parts of West Virginia. Although it was a lot of traveling, it was for a good cause. I got the chance to see much of the area and the beautiful sights they offered.
After getting accustomed to the honor guard lifestyle, I wanted to take on bigger roles, leadership positions. I started volunteering for all of the NCO positions on details. I was prepared to lead any detail, from every aspect, whether it was calling commands, coordinating the flow of the funeral or making judgment calls. Most importantly, I was ready to be the one to present the flag to the next-of-kin.
I can vividly recall my first detail in the NCO position where I would present a flag to the next-of-kin. It was a large funeral for an Air Force veteran and the memorial was decorated from the chapel to the burial site.
The service arrived, and we reacted accordingly. Our cue was given and we began our portion of the ceremony. Everything went smoothly and I wasn’t nervous at all. I thought back to my training, prior experience, and how precise and efficient I had become.
I began my ceremonious approach to the next-of-kin, an elderly man with a heart-broken look covering his face. I dropped down to one knee and offered the flag.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” No stuttering, no broken bearing, it went exactly how I practiced.
With tears running down his face, he thanked me. I slowly stood up, rendered my salute and returned to the detail. It was the most rewarding experience in my Air Force career.
On the ride back to base, I began to think about the significance of the honor guard and our mission, not only the rendering of military honors, but the impact we have on families suffering with losses. The lives we touch through our ceremonious performances and the honor we bring to the heroes passed away provide an amount of closure to the families.
The last three months appeared to fly right by. Although anxious to return to my career field, I look forward to once again serving with the 4th FW Honor Guard as we pay respects to those Service members who have gone before us.