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Honors to showmanship: a weeklong crash course of how to look Honor Guard

  • Published
  • By Airman Nicolas Z. Erwin
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

If given the opportunity to get a crash course in your favorite subject, but only in a week, would you take it?

I did. My passion is the military, whether it is history or drill movements. I love everything the military represents.

The United States Air Force Honor Guard flew out to visit professionals stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., and to train them in rendering honors for both the flag and to those service members who have passed on. I was luckily one of those people immersed in this hands-on experience.

Most Airmen remember basic military training and those people with the tendency to march awkwardly. I was one of those people who still do from time to time. The Air Force Honor Guard team instructed us on how to crisply showcase our movements, making them picturesque. It was a resurrection of a forgotten art, rather than a refresher course.

To the other participants of this honor guard training class, doing facing movements seemed natural and easy. I struggled. I wasn’t on the same level as the other 11 in the group, but they never ceased to support me.  What I came to realize was that I was with people who I have grown to respect as some of the best Airmen I have met.

The instructors of this elite class set us against each other with a drill off, a competition focusing on precise and accurate facing movements. My pride and ego was on the line. The instructors commanded “fall out” when mistakes were made, and in the course of ten commands, only four remained standing.

Fear gripped me. Sweat covered me. I reacted with the most stoic and professional demeanor I could muster. In two fell swoops it happened. Someone grimaced and another did not respond fast enough. I was standing alone, having won a competition against the best of the best of the Ellsworth Air Force Base Honor Guard.

I felt like the cream of the crop. But, the crop was quickly obliterated in a barrage of bullets when we moved on to the firing party instructions.

I charged an M14 rifle more times than most people, myself included, can count to. My elbow made sure I felt it in the morning.

We were evaluated. I was not chopped off the block. Even with aching hands and limbs, we had to continue. There was the next portion of the class awaiting: the meat and potatoes of honor guard – the casket and flag folding sequence.

It seems simple: move a casket from a hearse to a mock-up without letting the flag hit the floor. There was much more to it than moving the remains of a service member 100 feet. The actual ceremony requires strength, teamwork and the resolve to lay a service member to rest with dignity.

The first large-scale exercise encompassed teams of six carrying a three hundred pound casket for ten minutes. Ten minutes seems short. It could be a quick break – the time it takes to grab a meal from a mediocre restaurant – or it could feel like years.

For most funerals we perform, it is a two minute walk from the hearse to the mock-up for the family to watch the American flag be folded. Having the understanding that for other bases, the distance varies and being capable of holding this casket for a prolonged amount of time changed from a skill to a necessary trait.

The honor guard trainers trained us from novices to experienced ceremonial guardsmen, not by overtly changing how we perform, but by what goes into the minute specifics that make the difference between the funeral staff and the Ellsworth Air Force Base Honor Guard.

We also learned the flag bearing and parade sequences for different functions we do depending on the amount of guardsmen we tasked out. It involved a tremendous amount of throwing, twirling, standing bewildered with calloused hands due to long hours holding rifles.

All these things seemed intense and inaccessible, but it almost feels like second-nature when a rifle comes into my hands, knowing the weight and pivot points, knowing exactly the time in which the rifle could strike my palm and be reversed in direction. All of it became awe-inspiring.

Everything a person is can vanish like breath on a mirror. It just fades. But, the memories they leave with others tend to remain. The honor guard trainers left and some people might not even remember their names, yet the entire Ellsworth Air Force Base Honor Guard will never forget the skills and standards that have been set until we fade into the legends of the past.