I was perusing through old entries of Triumphs & Tribulations from years past as I always do before writing new entries and I came up on an entry from May 2006 about an honor guard trip to this small town in the Florida boondocks called Crescent City. It was there that I actually experienced one of the more unpleasant moments of my life when I experienced racism in blatant and brazen form. I’ll likely detail that another time in a different post. Reading through that entry took me back to the good ol’ days down in South Georgia and my time as a ceremonial guardsman. So that’s where this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series takes us…to my Honor Guard days.
How I first came across this moment? The circumstances that resulted in me ending up in the Moody Air Force Base Honor Guard started in the CES Customer Service Office. It was in November 2005. I had been working as an Operations Manager in the office for 2 years and I was still on the CES Service Call desk, taking all the complaints and attitude from people on base who had some kind of issue with their facility. Not that it was a bad job but I had long felt that I ready to move to being a controller for one of the craft shops. At the time, there were 13 people in the junior enlisted tier working in the office and I was the low man on the totem pole all around—last Airman assigned to office, lowest ranked Airman, youngest person in the office—stuck behind everybody else. My then-supervisor always complimented my work on the Service Call desk and I even got rave reviews from the flight chief and superintendent on my work. I was good at what I did and I expected to move up the ranks in the office to the higher profile positions. After all, on the refrigerator in my dorm room was a sticky note with goals on them and #1 was to be the best 3E6X1 on Moody AFB. I felt that all the time I was on the Service Call desk was preventing me from achieving that goal. I felt unappreciated so I threw my name in the hat as a volunteer to join the Base Honor Guard. The commander selected me to represent the squadron for the 1-year commitment, which consisted of 3 months full-time and 9 months as a reserve. The civilian office chief was pissed and she let the commander know about it. Apparently, she didn’t want to lose a body to the Honor Guard for that long. The commander made his choice and I was off to the Honor Guard…my relationship with the office chief was fractured for the remainder of my time there. Once I was in the Honor Guard, everything changed for me. I started to appreciate military service more…even considered applying for one of the positions at the national level. We practiced hard in the Honor Guard…going over almost every scenario imaginable in a funeral, parade, or retirement ceremony. We performed under a code of excellence. We had inside competitions. It was just good times. The Honor Guard days are what really exposed me to much of South Georgia and North Florida as those areas were in our area of responsibility. The TDYs were non-stop. I never imagined so many veterans and retirees died every day until I was in the Honor Guard…though I suspect that the location had something to do with the high frequency. Over the course of the 1-year commitment, I performed at 63 funerals, 7 retirement ceremonies, 4 parades, 2 retreats and an Air Force rifle cordon. I performed in just about every position except NCOIC of Pallbearers. I had 2 favorite positions: bugler and NCOIC of Firing Party. As the bugler, I just stood off in the distance, held the bugle to face and pressed a button to play the recorded rendition of “Taps”. In hindsight, I thought that was pretty cheesy. I loved being the NFP for 2 reasons: (1) I got to wear the ceremonial belt and (2) the fact that I was in complete control of the firing line. In that year, there were some wild moments…like the time we needed an escort from the Ware County (GA) Sheriff’s Office because the deceased retiree had married twice and both women wanted the flag and the families were beefing against each other…or the time a snake slithered across the coffin during a 6-man flag fold…or the time we were performing a 21-gun salute in a cemetery across the street from a live football game and everybody in the stadium evacuated…or getting muddy in my attempt to prevent the flag from hitting the ground after the next of kin fainted when I presented it to her. Nothing beat the uniform change locations though. We were known to change in the bathrooms of grocery stores, shopping malls, car dealerships, schools, and even restaurants. We never traveled in uniform—except for local ceremonies—and the towns were so far off the beaten paths that we’d usually show up with about 30-40 minutes to spare…enough time to quickly change wherever we could and get in a quick run-through. It was good times though…good camaraderie, good food, and good performances.
What it meant to me then? At the time, being on the Base Honor Guard was all about having fun and getting paid to do it. I didn’t have to worry about customers in CES. For me, it was like being a rock star. I got props and all kind of love on and off installation. At performances, civilians often approached me to take pictures and ask for autographs…they even offered to pay for lunches and gas back to our base. I felt a deep sense of pride when I was the NCOIC of the team because it meant I would be the person who presented the flag to the next of kin. I felt some kind of way whenever a widow grabbed my hand or stood up to hug me when I presented her with the flag: I cried every time. For all the times I was NPF, I felt larger than life. When I was commanding that firing line, I made sure it wasn’t just a normal 21-gun salute…I made it a spectacle that those in attendance would never forget. At least, I tried to do so with the way I called out commands.
What it means to me now? In today’s time, many years after the fact, that year still stands out to me…professionally and personally. From a professional standpoint, I gained a much deeper appreciation for those that came before me in service and it changed my outlook and I never worked another day during my military career without giving my very best. From a personal standpoint, the Honor Guard experience was the catalyst for the sea change in my personal life. I met one of my ex-girlfriends at a funeral that I was performing at and though our relationship started good, it ended horribly. I was so pained by that relationship and how it ended that I moved to Tokyo and the rest is history. It was because of that year that I got the 1st of my 2 Air Force Achievement Medals. I still have the uniform in the closet at my father’s house. I would wear it for Halloween one of these days but having served in that capacity, I couldn’t even think about doing something like that. Nowadays, when I look at these kids raising the flag or folding it, I remember those days.