Veteran’s Day was a few days ago. As a veteran of the United States Air Force, i got to thinking a bit about my service. I spent 9 years and almost 3 months on active duty; 1 year 6 months of which I was stationed at Homestead AFB, Florida, located a few miles south of Miami. One aspect of my military career that I often overlook, and, as a consequence, never talk about, is serving on the Homestead AFB Honor Guard.
As young airmen, my roommate and I were kind of talked into joining the Honor Guard by our shop superiors. I mean, the choice was ours, but it was strongly suggested that we join. I suppose one of the factors that led us to join was that we would occasionally get time off from the job to go places and represent Homestead AFB; occasionally we’d get a work day off if our details occurred on weekends or late into the night. Another factor was likely that it would be something that would look good on my military record, considering I intended to apply for Officer Training School at some point later in my military career.
We carried the colors in parades and opening ceremonies, wielded sabres at weddings, led retreat ceremonies, and performed military funerals for deceased active duty and retired personnel. I marched in few parades, usually as one of the rifle guards. I performed in one military wedding. It was held in the base chapel. Though I don’t recall (probably because they aren’t very memorable, I’m certain I participated in several retreat ceremonies. But, being based in South Florida with its large retiree population, by far the most common details I was tasked for were funerals, primarily for retired personnel.
Once or twice I was part of the rifle team for the 21-gun salute. But most of the time I was tasked as a pall bearer. Pall bearers also fold the flag that is placed over the casket. Some of those caskets were very heavy and, on more than one occasion, we had to carry them quite some distance from the chapel to the grave site. The procession is slow and deliberate too. We were trained to use only one hand to carry the casket, but, we could use two if the casket was heavy. I mean, it was way better to use two hands rather than drop the casket.
Usually the ranking NCO gave commands for folding the flag. There aren’t many commands for the task, but on one occasion, the ranking NCO of the detail was fairly new to the Honor Guard and didn’t know the commands very well. By that time, I had been a member of the Honor Guard and performed several funerals as a pall bearer. Being very familiar with the commands, I quietly gave them. I don’t think anyone in the congregation knew that the NCOIC of the detail didn’t give the commands that day. I doubt they even know that someone gives commands to fold the flag. Fortunately, the NCOIC knew the words to say when presenting the folded flag to the deceased’s family. I wasn’t prepared to do that.
I’ve been asked a few times how I could attend and perform at so many funerals without getting emotional. For me, it was actually pretty easy. First, I don’t normally get emotional over someone’s death, at least not outwardly, even when I knew the deceased. My maternal grandmother died when I was 17. I didn’t get emotional when I received the news. I don’t know why I get emotional when confronted with death. But my view is that death is part of life, and I believe it’s a time to celebrate the deceased’s life, not mourn the deceased’s death. Secondly, I didn’t know the people who died, their families, friends or colleagues. They were unknown. Hard to get emotionally involved when you have no ties to the person who died. Lastly, I was busy doing my job, representing the United States Air Force and Homestead AFB. I didn’t have time to get emotional.
I enjoyed being on the Honor Guard. Strange thing is, I detested wearing my blues; I always wore the battle dress uniform (camouflage) except for Airman of the Month interviews. Yet that was always the Honor Guard uniform. I was proud to wear that uniform, whether it was the Honor Guard uniform, dress blues, casual blues or my usual uniform of the day, the battle dress uniform.