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Volunteering To Honor With Dignity
by U.S. Air Force Leticia Cunningham, 55th Wing PA
November 2, 2021

Years ago, the responsibility to provide military funeral honors would routinely be tasked to the mortuary affairs offices. They in turn tasked either the base security forces squadron or fledgling honor guard teams made up of volunteers that held practices after their duty day was done.

They were taught about the flag - the stripes representing the 13 original colonies, the stars representing the 50 states of the union, the color red symbolizing hardiness and valor, the color white symbolizing purity and innocence, and the color blue symbolizing the vigilance, perseverance and justice. They learned about the 13 folds and what each fold represented.

Members of the Offutt Air Force Base Honor Guard practice folding the American Flag on April 28, 2020 at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. (U.S. Air Force photo by Leticia Cunningham, 55th Wing PA)
Members of the Offutt Air Force Base Honor Guard practice folding the American Flag on April 28, 2020 at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. (U.S. Air Force photo by Leticia Cunningham, 55th Wing PA)

The Air Force ceremonial unit began with the 1100th Air Police Squadron at Bolling Air Force Base, Maryland, officially becoming a squadron in 1972. It is now the USAF Honor Guard and considered a special duty assignment.

In 1995, the Protocol, Honors and Ceremonies course was established, instituting the Base Honor Program. It provided written guidance and standards on military ceremonies and military funerals and standardized the honor guard uniform.

Many have witnessed the precision of a team during a change of command or retirement ceremony. Their ceremonial uniform is unmistakable - the silver rope over the left shoulder, white gloves, the blue and silver belt around the waist, and the service cap sitting squarely on their head.

The Offutt AFB Honor Guard program is made up of non-commissioned officers and airmen from different military career fields. They learn and perform the tasks of honoring the flag with dignity and discipline as they honor the men and women who served this country.

“During my time with Goodfellow AFB Honor Guard, I saw the impact of the Honor Guard mission,” said Senior Airman Winter Fox Frank, ceremonial guardsman. “The duties of Honor Guard are an important opportunity to demonstrate the Air Force’s sincere appreciation for the honorable service of the Airmen.”

Members of the Offutt AFB Honor Guard carry the last of 25 transfer cases off the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency honorable carry flight on September 4, 2020. These were last set of remains transferred from the European Theater for the World War II Ploesti Disinterment Project. (U.S. Air Force photo by Leticia Cunningham, 55th Wing PA)
Members of the Offutt AFB Honor Guard carry the last of 25 transfer cases off the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency honorable carry flight on September 4, 2020. These were last set of remains transferred from the European Theater for the World War II Ploesti Disinterment Project. (U.S. Air Force photo by Leticia Cunningham, 55th Wing PA)

On their first day, volunteers must learn the reason for the high standards of conduct set before them. They begin each morning by reciting the creed originally written in the 1980’s by Staff Sergeant Al Turner. It was revised in 1999 and reads:

“Handpicked to serve as a member of the United States Air Force Honor Guard, my standards of conduct and level of professionalism must be above reproach, for I represent all others in my service.

Others earned the right for me to wear the ceremonial uniform, one that is honored in a rich tradition and history, I will honor their memory by wearing it properly and proudly.

Never will I allow my performance be dictated by the type of ceremony, severity of the temperature, or size of the crowd. I will remain superbly conditioned to perfect all movements throughout every drill and ceremony.

Obligated by my oath, I am constantly driven to excel by a deep devotion to duty and a strong sense of dedication.

Representing every member, past and present, of the United States Air Force, I vow to stand SHARP, CRISP and MOTIONLESS, for I am a ceremonial guardsman!”

“I am responsible for the Airmen that sign up for this program and making sure that they present a professional image,” said Master Sgt. Roneisha Williams, Offutt Honor Guard program manager. “They not only represent the honor guard, but the Air Force.”

Base Honor Guard currently consists of 21 members volunteering to serve for six months. Each team detail must be committed to memory and every step performed with the necessary precision.

“There are a series of qualifications of increasing difficulty for different ceremonies that members must continuously progress through in order to be allowed to perform in actual ceremonies outside the training environment,” Williams said.

These men and women drill every day practicing removing the flag off a casket and folding it, making sure each fold is as meticulous as the fold before it. They practice marching into place, getting into firing party position, and firing their weapons. They rehearse the difference between posting and presenting the colors. They drill daily on every procedure until it is crisp and concise.

“What we do here is tangible and important, particularly funeral services and the handing off of the flag are significant in value on both a professional and sentimental level,” said Senior Airman Connor Seago, ceremonial guardsman. “Considering the weight they carry both traditionally to the profession of arms and on a more intimate level to the family who is witnessing this final ceremony of care the Air Force is providing to respect its fallen that have served.”

These men and women provide these honors to a service area that includes central and eastern Nebraska, the entire state of Iowa, and several counties in Kansas, covering a total of 107,000 square miles.

Members of the Offutt Air Force Base Honor Guard present the “colors” during a change of command ceremony at the Warhawk Community Center, Offutt AFB, Nebraska on July 15, 2021. The color-guard detail is one of four details within the Honor Guard providing military ceremonies that are steeped in history. (U.S. Air Force photo by Leticia Cunningham, 55th Wing PA)
Members of the Offutt Air Force Base Honor Guard present the “colors” during a change of command ceremony at the Warhawk Community Center, Offutt AFB, Nebraska on July 15, 2021. The color-guard detail is one of four details within the Honor Guard providing military ceremonies that are steeped in history. (U.S. Air Force photo by Leticia Cunningham, 55th Wing PA)

The BHG scheduler’s sole job is to coordinate with funeral directors and schedule all requested details. So far this year, the BHG has provided color guard details to 63 change of command and retirement ceremonies and 514 funeral services.

BHG military ceremonies are steeped in tradition and meaning. Their origins can be traced back to the U.S. Army official ceremonial unit, still currently active today. That unit began as the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment and are now known as “The Old Guard.” Through their example, the Air Force was directed to create an elite ceremonial unit in 1948.

During the Napoleonic Wars, flags were used to carry the deceased off the battlefields due to the lack of stretchers, which is represented today by the flag draped over the caskets.

Traced back to the European dynastic wars, when each side could clear the dead and wounded from the fields, the firing of three volleys indicated that they had all been properly cared for and cleared out of the fields. This is now represented by the seven-member firing team firing three volleys comprising a 21-gun salute.

The mournful sound of “To the Colors,” known as taps, is said to have originated during the Civil War within the Union Army. It was meant to order soldiers back to their quarters and prepare for bed.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the colors were carried onto the battlefields to inspire the troops. This is now represented in posting or presenting the colors during military ceremonies, which include the flag folding ceremony with the meaning of the 13 folds, to honor the deceased for their dedication and sacrifice.

The flag folding ceremony is often a silent one, though on occasion the meaning of the folds are spoken as they occur. A family member may request the recitation of the words to accompany the flag folding ceremony honoring their loved one’s sacrifice and dedication.

Members of the Offutt Air Force Base Honor Guard fold American flag during a funeral on May 10, 2021 at Omaha National Cemetery, Omaha Nebraska. Both the color guard team and the flag folding team are part of the “full honors” funeral for an active duty member passing while on active duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kendra Williams)
Members of the Offutt Air Force Base Honor Guard fold American flag during a funeral on May 10, 2021 at Omaha National Cemetery, Omaha Nebraska. Both the color guard team and the flag folding team are part of the “full honors” funeral for an active duty member passing while on active duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kendra Williams)

Earlier this year, an Offutt civilian employee received an extra flag after his brother’s military funeral. It was unfolded, so he took it to the BHG and explained the reason for the flag. Members of the honor guard folded the flag and later that day made an “official” presentation. The presentation reflected the BHG’s dedication as they went above and beyond to honor the memory this employee’s brother.

These are the words spoken to the surviving family member as the ceremonial guardsman presents the folded flag.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, and the United States Air Force, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

Military Funeral Honors requests should typically be made as soon as possible to prepare the detail with the minimum lead-time of 48 hours. Funeral homes are encouraged to contact the non-commissioned officer in charge immediately upon requests for honors and provide a copy of DD Form 214 with “honorable discharge.”

There is a difference in funeral services provided by the BHG. The full honors funeral is for active duty dying while on active duty or a purple heart recipient. This includes a six-member flag folding team, a seven-member firing team, six pallbearers and a bugler. The standard funeral is for retired veterans. It consists of a two-member flag folding team, with the option to provide a full seven-member firing team and a bugler. Per congressional mandate, other veterans who served their country but did not retire are eligible for a two-member flag folding team and a bugler.

“It’s a nice way to give back to the community and show respect to those who have served” said Airman 1st Class Bryce Griffith, ceremonial guardsman.

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