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To honor with dignity

Posted 4/23/2014   Updated 4/23/2014 Email story   Print story


by Senior Airman Peter Reft
354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

4/23/2014 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- When I first joined Eielson's base Honor Guard program, I really didn't know what kind of organization I was joining. I was just another first-term Airman seeking to make a mark in his career. It was just another bullet, another volunteer option in the long list of programs.

However, I soon realized I was part of something much more. I was a part of a global family of Airmen dedicating their time and their lives to honoring past and present members of the United States Air Force.

I was recently given the honor of being selected to attend the Air Force In-residence Course on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., in order to fulfill a trainer's position in the Eielson Honor Guard program. I met Honor Guard members from all over the globe, as far away as Japan and Hawaii.

As we mingled in the classroom, a giant of a man stepped through the doorway and greeted us with a big smile.

Nelson Ashley, a retired chief master sergeant and current superintendent of the Air Force Honor Guard, said, "Welcome to the Honor Guard family, your family all over the world."

I half-expected a booming command voice to tell us to fall into ranks, but Mr. Ashley's friendliness let me know that they were more than happy to have us there. He reached out to us in a welcoming gesture and his arms seemed large enough to hug everybody in the classroom. There was no doubt in my mind that everyone in the classroom felt the same way.

The training flight instructors introduced themselves and shared with us their experiences as ceremonial guardsmen. Their stories ranged from carrying 1,200-pound granite caskets, facing high-velocity winds strong enough to drag a standing flag bearer across concrete, carrying a casket up 200 stairs, and standing at attention for two and a half hours for the inauguration of the President of the United States.

It was awe-inducing to hear about the challenges they overcame while performing their duties -- challenges they face year-round and on a regular basis.

It was a real sight to see the facilities of an Air Force-level funded Honor Guard program. The amount of resources and training equipment they had at their disposal eclipsed anything I had seen or hoped for at the base Honor Guard level. It was an even better sight to witness a seven-man firing party practice prior to their active duty funeral detail.

A thundering crack of seven rifles firing in harmony caught me off guard, as I had not been aware of the firing party formed up in the courtyard below. Everybody in the class room froze in place when they heard the first volley then hustled to the hallway balcony to get a better glimpse. We watched in silence as the team finished their practice session. Seeing the Air Force Honor Guard firing party in person was quite the humbling experience.

The highlight of the training week for me was when the instructors had us practice six-man flag folds alongside the drill team running through their own routines. Seeing the drill team members maneuver their rifles with robotic precision was a spectacle. It was inspiring to have the chance to train alongside the Air Force Honor Guard.

Being able to visit the foundation of the Honor Guard program broadened my perspective of the scope of the work for which ceremonial guardsmen choose to dedicate a portion of their career. Simply from the sight of these men and women I could easily tell they had a strong sense of dedication to their jobs.

From the first week of training, to earning my current position as a trainer, my time as a member of the Eielson Honor Guard has helped me understand the distinction of having time in military service and the sacrifices that must be made by surviving family members of Airmen who have fallen in the line of duty.

As much of an impact that I may have on a family at their loved one's funeral, those people have just as much impact on me when they walk up to me to shake my hand and thank me for my service. It is, to say the least, an inspiring experience every time.

Serving time as a ceremonial guardsman is so much more than just another point for career advancement. If I had my way, I would have that bullet point be made ineligible for those seeking below-the-zone promotions or quarterly and annual awards. The Honor Guard program is a service for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, not for those looking for a status boost.

I came into the Honor Guard program as such an individual, but have grown out of that train of thought. I aim to continue expanding my experiences and, more importantly, to pass on that experience and sense of duty to those who come after me.

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