EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
It started with a flame; the fire burned yellow and the coals smoldered a hot red. I was sitting under the open North Dakota sky, camping on a beautiful weekend. All of a sudden, my pocket lit up. It was my supervisor doing his best to ruin a perfect night needless to say, he succeeded. He informed me that on Monday, instead of going to the public affairs office I was to report to the Honor Guard building, where I would work for the next six months.
I remember thinking how horrible it was going to be. I had fully settled into my little home in the public affairs office, and to be honest, I was perfectly happy doing nothing because I knew (or at least I thought) no one really cared about our job or what we did. I’d grown accustomed to my routine of shooting the “bull” with my friends and watching YouTube videos all day, never having to do any actual work. Now that was all ruined. Great, I thought to myself.
As I stepped through the doors of the Honor Guard building that next day, to my left was a ceremonial uniform. I stared at it. I’d seen the uniform before but never really took the time to look at it. I was impressed and a little excited to wear it. It looked so sharp and what I had always imagined a military uniform should look like.
As I found my way through the building, I was greeted by Staff Sgt. Crawley. Her first words to me were, “It’s 8, you’re 15 minutes late.”
“No, I’m not,” I thought. “I was told to be here at 8, I’m on time.” I would soon come to learn that in Honor Guard you are held to a higher standard and being 15 minutes early meant you were on time.
After the first two weeks of what seemed like endless training, I was so tired of actually working ten-hour days, I wanted to go back to my corner desk where I could watch funny videos and joke with my peers. I had learned all of the ceremonial moves and to be honest, even though I didn't really want to be there I found myself naturally tuning to the task and already standing out over others in my flight.
Now being better than others isn't necessarily a good thing. It meant the first funeral detail we were tasked with I was going on. I remember it like it was just a few hours ago. My fellow guardsmen and I had traveled to Finlayson, a little town in Minnesota, to perform military honors for a retired master sergeant.
I found myself nervous as I stood just a few feet away from a distraught family. I stood motionless until the pastor said, “Paul will now be laid to rest following military honors.”
My fellow guardsmen and I folded the flag perfectly and when I handed it to a grieving husband and gave my message of condolence, I will never forget the look in his eyes and the way I felt when he thanked me. I didn't say anything. I simply and ceremoniously did an about-face and never saw him again.
In that very moment, in that little town, my life changed forever. I spent the previous year and a half of my military career feeling as though what I did really didn't make a difference. I never felt satisfied with my work in the public affairs office and I certainly didn't think I would be satisfied with Honor Guard. Yet, for the entire six hour drive back to base, all I could think about was the difference I was making. It felt good knowing that providing military honors to a fallen brother or sister meant something, and I felt proud for the first time in my military career.
After my time at Honor Guard, I went back to the public affairs office with an inspired outlook on my job. I found meaning in telling people’s stories and seeing the happiness that I could bring to individuals and to other countries when given the opportunity. And it all started with a flame, and what I thought at the time was a ruined weekend.