By Airman 1st Class Shelby Orozco
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. – For some, seeing an elite team of Honor Guardsmen perform a flag-folding ceremony or a firing party can be a contributing factor in their decision to join the military. To others, Honor Guard is their final glimpse of the military and all that comes along with it.
The members of Whiteman Air Force Base’s Honor Guard recognize and understand their importance in today’s military.
“Honor Guard makes you have more pride about yourself and the uniform,” said Airman 1st Class Nathaniel Armbruster, 509th Bomb Wing Honor Guard A-Team team member. “It gives you more responsibility because you have to volunteer yourself. It’s up to you how many details you want, what position you want, whether you want to be a good leader or not.”
Honor Guard details provide services at a diverse range of events, most notably funerals, flag presentation ceremonies and firing parties, said Master Sgt. Steven Grigg, 509th Honor Guard noncommissioned officer in charge.
“Our number one mission is providing military funeral honors,” Grigg said. “The color guard details are our secondary mission.”
Military funerals are separated into three groups – veteran funerals, retiree funerals and, lastly, active-duty funerals.
“For a veteran, we send a two-person team to do a flag-fold presentation and the playing of taps,” Grigg said. “For a retiree, we’ll send a seven-person team to do the flag fold, taps, a firing party and also pallbearers if the family requests that. For an active-duty funeral we will send the whole team of 21 members, and they’re going to do the same presentations with the flags, taps and a firing party.”
Whiteman’s Honor Guard members take funeral honors very seriously, as that intimate moment represents a family’s final earthly memory of their loved one’s service in the Air Force.
“I think the best thing for these airmen is going out to present the flag to a grieving widow and they reach up and give them a big hug, or a family member stops them to shake their hand,” Grigg said. “It’s powerful to be able to give the family the closure they need.”
The airmen are always focused on training for the next service they will provide.
“New airmen to Honor Guard have a week of orientation,” said Senior Airman Julianne Pendergast, 509th Honor Guard A-Team team member. “We go over basic movements, flag folds, rifle movements and funeral sequences. Once we actually hit rotation, it’s training every day. We train all the way up to our last rotation.”
Rotations refer to the months spent within Honor Guard, which is a one-year service commitment, said Grigg.
“Once in Honor Guard, the airmen will do one month here, one month at their normal job, come back here for another month, back and forth for the length of their commitment,” Grigg said.
It takes two to three one-month rotations to become fully trained, said Senior Airman Chris Anderson, 509th Honor Guard A-Team team member.
The commitment is more than just going to work Monday through Friday and then having the weekends off, said Grigg.
“One day a weekend, if not both, you’re probably going to be working,” said Senior Airman Timothy Caballero, 509th Honor Guard A-Team team member.
The airmen always find a way to make it to their details, regardless of weather or time, said Pendergast.
“One day during winter, I pulled up to the Honor Guard building and the airmen were outside in their full ceremonial service dress digging the van out of the snow,” Grigg said. “They could have very easily called the funeral director and said, ‘The van is stuck, we can’t go,’ but they didn’t because they want to succeed at their job.”
Honor Guard is not serious 24/7 though, said Armbruster.
“We see a lot of Missouri we would not normally get to see,” Armbruster said. “So we’ll find some nice place to eat that we would never drive to on our own and we’ll stop and have a great time together.”
The airmen of Whiteman’s Honor Guard are a very tight-knit family, said Anderson.
To get involved in Honor Guard, Grigg tells airmen to make their supervisors aware of their interest.
“Anybody from airman basic to tech sergeant can be in Honor Guard,” Grigg said. “When one of my team member’s year commitment is up, I will contact the first sergeant of their squadron and tell them I need a replacement. If an airman let their supervisor know they want to be in Honor Guard, then when that spot comes up the supervisor will say, ‘Oh, airman so-and-so said he wanted to do Honor Guard,’ and then their chance of getting selected is that much better.”
Serving with Honor Guard greatly increases an airman’s chance of winning senior airman below-the-zone, and greatly improves career performance, as well, Grigg said.
“Most of the airmen that come here are already finished with their career development courses, even though it’s not a requirement,” Grigg said. “The airmen have plenty of time here within Honor Guard to work on CDCs, job training, college courses or anything they need. The things you learn within Honor Guard are tremendous. The level of respect you learn to treat everybody with, that’s going to carry on through an airman’s career.”
Every day within Honor Guard is an exciting one, with no two funerals or ceremonies being the same, said Pendergast.
“One funeral we went to was for a man who became a clown after he left the Air Force,” Grigg said. “All of the people at his funeral, even the preacher, were dressed as clowns. I’ll never forget it.” Photos by Airman 1st Class Shelby Orozco.