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Eielson ceremonial guardsmen honor Barrow veteran

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- As a member of the Eielson Air Force Base Honor Guard, I am mandated by Congress to render final military honors to Air Force veterans, retirees and Airmen who die on active duty.

Eielson's area of responsibility is the largest in the Air Force at 300,000 square miles. We cover the entire northern half of Alaska. Our latest funeral request sent us to Barrow, which happens to be the northern-most village in the United States.

The funeral was for Nathaniel Olemaun Jr., a 72 year-old veteran of the military. He served four years in the Air Force and was also a former mayor and whale fisherman in Barrow.

As we walked off of the aircraft, the area welcomed us with below freezing temperatures and unrelenting wind.

Barrow is truly the "Last Frontier" of Alaska. Storage containers are scattered throughout the properties and homes are small. The families' latest harvests line the streets in preparation to ration for the brutal winter ahead and snow-machines and four wheelers outnumber regular vehicles.

After speaking with the point of contact for the funeral, my team began to plan how the next day would go.

As ceremonial guardsmen, we practice for countless hours before we are publicly seen. We prepare uniforms, take time to plan our movement in to and out of the site, and fire blanks at the burial ground to sync our timing.

We even practice a two-man flag fold in the hallway between our hotel rooms.  Everything is rehearsed over and over until it is perfect. 

The viewing was at Barrow Elementary School's indoor playground. Because Olemaun was such an influential man to so many, it was expected that 500-600 family members, friends and coworkers would show up to pay their last respects.

It was overwhelming at first, as this was the biggest crowd we had seen so far. We performed a flag fold and Taps at the school and then presented his grieving widow with the flag.

Keeping a straight face while presenting the flag to the members' next of kin as they try to cope with their loss is by far the hardest thing to learn in Honor Guard. After the service, we drove out to the burial site to perform the iconic rifle tradition known as a Three Round Volley, more commonly known as a 21-gun salute.

From start to finish, the service lasted a little more than six hours. That time was filled with prayers, personal stories, tears, laughs and family songs.
It was a privilege to be a part of it.

As a team, we took numerous pictures, joined the community in eating a meal of caribou and whale, and tried to learn some of the local language. Most importantly, we learned what everybody saw in Nathaniel.

Mr. Olemaun, from everybody in the Eielson Air Force Base Honor Guard, thank you for all you did for your family, community, state and country.

May you Rest in Peace.