If you spend much time around Washington, D. C., you’ll see Air Force Honor Guardsmen serving at change of command ceremonies, performing at White House arrivals, laying wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, welcoming visiting dignitaries, and honoring former members of the Air Force at funerals.
On Veterans Day, though, you’ll find members of the elite unit rendering honors with just a little more snap, reflecting a touch more pride in what they do.
“Veterans Day is one of two very special times of the year for us,” said Capt. Steven Benton, officer in charge of the Air Force Honor Guard’s ceremonial flight. “We honor individuals who have given a part of their lives—sometimes the greater portion of their lives—to their country.
“But at this time of the year, and on Memorial Day, we’re not just honoring individuals. We’re paying tribute to all who have served.”
On Veterans Day, the Honor Guard will take part in a joint-service ceremony with the Secretary of Defense at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery. The holiday observance is just part of their job of representing USAF at ceremonies in Washington. Last year, the Honor Guard proudly rendered honors on more than 2,200 occasions in the nation’s capital.
In 1987, they served at 666 military funerals, including those of retired Air Force Gen. Ira C. Eaker and retired Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They opened the Air Force Association convention in September and presided over the retirement ceremonies of numerous Air Force members in the Washington area.
The Honor Guard saluted former Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona; outgoing Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; Frank Carlucci, the current Secretary; and other national and foreign dignitaries. It rendered the proper military honors on Bolling’s Ceremonial Lawn, at the White House, and in the Pentagon. It marched in Washington’s Cherry Blossom Parade and in Philadelphia’s parade celebrating the bicentennial of the signing of the Constitution.
Representing the Force
Whatever the occasion, the intent of the Honor Guard is the same: to represent the Air Force proudly, with honor and dignity. It’s an important mission, but one that’s sometimes not fully understood.
“On behalf of the Air Force, we pay respect and tribute to those who have served their country,” said Maj. John Ufford, who commanded the Honor Guard until this past July. “But just as important, we represent the Air Force as it should be represented—as the most professional military organization in the world.
“That’s important, particularly when we’re being seen by officials from other countries. Their opinions of the US military can be formed by one impression, the one they get when they see us.”
That sentiment was echoed by SSgt. Walter Payne, NCO in charge of the Honor Guard’s training flight. “Whether we’re at the White House, at Arlington National Cemetery, or anywhere else, we want to leave a strong, lasting impression. That’s important to us, because we’re not just representing the Air Force Honor Guard. We’re representing everyone in the Air Force.”
For many who aren’t associated with the Honor Guard, the job of Air Force representative seems easy enough: stand at attention and look good while you’re doing it. It looks simple to the untrained eye. But there’s a lot more to it: learning the Honor Guard way to walk, learning the Honor Guard way to talk, and cultivating the Honor Guard look.
Standards Are High
First, you’ve got to be in the Honor Guard, and just the initial requirements can be an insurmountable obstacle for many applicants. Men must be at least five feet ten inches tall and women—they’ve served in the Honor Guard since 1976—must be no shorter than five feet six inches. That’s so all the armed forces can present a uniform appearance.
Applicants must be in excellent physical condition, have smooth complexions, be United States citizens, and be willing to maintain an exceptional appearance. And that’s just to have your record considered. It must, of course, be perfect in every way.
“We’ll only look at applications that are superior,” said MSgt. Ken Mitchell, the Honor Guard superintendent. “We want top quality, so we also take a hard look at what their reporting officials have to say, their letters of recommendation, their full-length photograph, their medical history, and a security questionnaire that’s needed to apply for a presidential support security clearance.”
Why the strict requirements? “It’s not an easy job,” said Sergeant Mitchell. “If it were, anyone could do it. But everyone can’t.”
Even so, there’s no shortage of volunteers. The reasons for wanting to join are as varied as the members themselves. For some it’s the glamour. For others it’s the chance to serve their country in a different but meaningful way.
Sergeant Mitchell felt the initial urge to be a part of the Honor Guard in November 1963 as he watched the funeral of President John F Kennedy on television.
“I saw the Guard of Honor standing over his casket as it lay in state at the Capitol,” he recalled. “I decided then that I wanted to be a part of that.” With the exception of one four-year break and a six-month overseas remote tour, Sergeant Mitchell has been with the Honor Guard continuously since 1974, serving in a variety of assignments.
Photos in his office corroborate what’s said about the fifteen-year veteran—that he probably knows more about drill and ceremonies than anyone in the force. One faded photograph shows a youthful Sgt. Ken Mitchell ramrod straight as a member of the ceremonial flight. Another is of him at the White House during President Gerald Ford’s state dinner for King Juan Carlos of Spain.
The Ultimate Honors
But the event of which he is most proud to have taken part—The Ultimate Honors, in his words—was serving as part of the Guard of Honor during interment ceremonies honoring the Unknown Serviceman of the Vietnam Conflict. “That was top duty—ahead of inaugurals, parades, and everything else,” he said of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Sergeant Mitchell led one of the joint service honor guard teams who stood the Death Watch at Travis AFB, Calif., when the public was allowed to visit and pay their respects.
“People would come to the chapel and wait until the team was led by a member from a particular service. That was usually because of the service they or a relative or a friend had belonged to. Some of them waited for hours,” he said. “So when I stood my tours and saw someone from the Air Force paying their respects, I’d try to stand a little taller, be a little more proud for them.”
The attitude of excellence, which is sometimes hidden but always there, is evident when the Honor Guard buries the not-so-famous, too. SSgt. David Imming remembers a funeral for someone who’d served with the Honor Guard during the 1950s.
“We’d already folded the flag, and I was standing with it until I could present it at the end of the graveside services,” he recalled. “Everyone was pretty emotional, and I was starting to get that way, too. But I stood tight, thinking of the image this man would have presented thirty years ago in the same situation. I thought he deserved nothing less.”
That’s the kind of a job well done that’s not often observed by the public. Nor do outsiders often see, or appreciate, members of the Honor Guard who stand for hours in near-freezing weather. That’s what Sergeant Imming and others did so they could render honors for a few minutes during the arrival and departure ceremonies at the White House for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Such hardships are the price Honor Guardsmen pay every day, but it all comes with the territory, Sergeant Imming said, brushing aside any complaint.
All in a Day’s Work
Nicks, cuts, bumps, and bruises come with the territory, too, for members of the crack Honor Guard Drill Team. “The team assists Air Force recruiters and represents the Air Force in civilian communities that have limited exposure to the military,” explained 1st Lt. Mark Hobson, a former leader of the Drill Team.
The twenty-member Drill Team performs an eighteen-minute routine designed to display the coordination, professionalism, teamwork, and discipline of Air Force members. The standard performance consists of precise movements with Ml rifles and fixed bayonets, including a series of complex tosses and exchanges. The show-stopping highlight is a three-minute routine, during which the drill commander stands at attention while four team members simultaneously hurl their bayoneted weapons over, under, around—but not through—him.
How impressive is the show? Drill Team members tell of recruiters who’ve filled six-month quotas within thirty days of an exhibition. Others talk about people who joined the Air Force solely on the basis of a Drill Team show.
Those results—and the glory of being in the spotlight—don’t come without a price. The Drill Team spends 180 days a year on the road, and many of its members sport nicks, cuts, and scars like those on A1C Kenneth Shako’s elbows, hands, and fingers.
That’s evidence of a very real danger. The Drill Team’s closest call probably came during a performance at Sea World in Florida when a tossed rifle went awry, cutting A1C Troy Benge just below his eye. Bleeding from the wound, he continued with the show.
That left quite an impression. But as any Honor Guardsman will tell you, it was all in a day’s work of representing the Air Force.
MSgt. Alan Prochoroff, USAF (Ret.), is a free-lance writer in the Washington, D. C., area. Before his October 1 retirement, he was Public Affairs Superintendent at the Public Affairs Office at the Air Force District of Washington, Boiling AFB, D. C.