WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
“On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Air Force, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
For many spouses and family members, a funeral ceremony accompanied by this phrase may be the last impression they will have of the U.S. Air Force. It is up to the members of the Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB) Honor Guard to ensure that impression is a good one.
“We are humbled to provide honors for those who have guarded our freedom, and we do so with dignity, pride and respect,” said Master Sgt. David Shaw, the Whiteman AFB Honor Guard NCO in charge. “Those being honored deserve the best and we are equipped to provide them with that. Although our schedules can be long and tedious, we understand that practice makes perfect, so we constantly train to ensure that we honor our heroes in the correct manner.”
Comprised of members from different units throughout the base, the Whiteman Honor Guard performs funeral and military honors in support of 99 counties in Missouri and 19 counties in Kansas, covering more than 70,000 square miles--one of the largest areas of responsibility in all of Air Force Global Strike Command.
While the team performs a wide array of ceremonies, from color guard details to saber teams for weddings, the primary mission of the Whiteman Honor Guard is to provide funeral honors for veterans, retirees and active-duty members. There are three different types of funeral services provided., a two-man team is assigned for veterans, who perform a flag fold and the playing of taps; a six-man team for retirees, who perform a flag fold, taps and a firing party; and a team for active-duty members, where a team of 21 members perform the flag presentation, taps and a firing party.
No matter if it is an Airman’s first day on honor guard, or last, they are expected to perfect all movements throughout every drill and ceremony. To ensure that ceremonies go off without a hitch, the team consistently trains for approximately six hours a day. Since no funeral is ever the same, the team must be conditioned to keep their bearing and adapt to any situation that may arise at the grave site.
“One day, it was pouring down rain, and our GPS couldn't find the location of the cemetery,” said Senior Airman Jeffrey Pipkin, an A-Team member of the Whiteman AFB Honor Guard. “We got lost, showed up late and the family was on site waiting. “We were told we were not pallbearing and then at the last minute they told us we were. They also wanted us to fold two flags instead of one,” added Pipkin. “It just goes to show that you can train over and over again, but you never really know how the service will go once you get there. It’s important for us to be ready to adapt and overcome.”
Adapting and overcoming are staples of being a ceremonial guardsman. When an Airman first arrives to honor guard, a lot of work must be done before they are sent to perform their first ceremony.
Each training class has a week-long orientation. Throughout the week the new honor guard members learn basic facing movements, flag folding procedures and memorize the Honor Guard Creed. They are issued their ceremonial uniforms, undergo a uniform inspection and train on perfecting a two-man ceremony before evaluations at the end of the training week.
On their final day of training, they are evaluated and undergo an hour long stamina test, where they perform facing movements and stand at the position of attention and the position of ceremonial at ease. The stamina test is designed to test their ability to maintain their bearing and simulate ceremonies where they could potentially be waiting in position for an extended amount of time. After completing the test and successfully passing evaluations, they recite the Honor Guard Creed and are ready to go out on their first detail.
"There is a lot of training to cover in the short week that we have the new recruits,” said Tech. Sgt. Jon Summers, the assistant NCO in charge of the Whiteman AFB Honor Guard. “There is always room for improvement as well as new duties to learn during the rest of their tour in the honor guard.
“Although the instruction is different from the guidance they received in basic training, it gives these Airmen a refresher of military drills, bearing and, most importantly, a reminder of the importance of their duty to give back to those that served before us," added Summers.
Throughout the week, as well as the weekend, ceremony requests are sent in and teams are regularly traveling throughout the state to support them. Some ceremonies can be as far away as four hours one way, but the honor guard team is always ready to provide their services.
“The sense of pride you gain by laying fallen veterans to rest is easily the most rewarding part of the job,” said Senior Airman Lane Starks, an A-team member of the Whiteman AFB Honor Guard. “Working with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the local American Legions and listening to them share stories is always interesting. The importance and solemnity of the job and the long car rides really create a sense of camaraderie, and it’s what makes the honor guard team such a tight-knit group.”
In order to become a member of the Whiteman Honor Guard, Airmen must first express their interest to their supervision. Each squadron on base sends one or two Airmen, depending on the size of the unit. Once an Airman is accepted, they will be either full time, or part time. Full time is assigned to honor guard for six months straight, whereas part time rotates for 12 months; one month at their primary squadron, and the next month on honor guard.
Honor guard can be extremely rewarding, not only by broadening Airmen’s career paths and providing a change of scenery from their primary job, but it also provides them with a sense of pride and honor.
“We are true professionals who hold the Air Force core values to heart, and we exercise them daily,” said Shaw. “The honor guard is not ideal for everyone, but everyone here is ideal for the honor guard!”