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Honor Guard Brings New Perspective for Airman

Nov. 1, 2017 | BY Air Force Airman 1st Class Suzanna Plotnikov , 81st Training Wing
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A yearlong commitment to the honor guard here was not what Air Force Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Graham expected it to be.

The noncommissioned officer in charge of the honor guard’s Delta Flight, Graham said he didn’t know a lot about honor guard when he joined. “I just saw the face of the Air Force Honor Guard -- them doing shows, performing and twirling rifles. Now that I’ve gotten into it, it means a lot more.”

Keesler Air Force Base Honor Guard members practice flag folding procedures before a funeral ceremony Oct. 26, 2017, at the Biloxi National Cemetery in Biloxi, Mississippi. The honor guard’s primary function is to support funerals, but when not performing funeral honors the honor guard team is available to post colors or perform flag folding ceremonies for most special events and retirements on base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Suzanna Plotnikov)
Keesler Air Force Base Honor Guard members practice flag folding before a funeral ceremony at the Biloxi National Cemetery in Biloxi, Miss., Oct. 26, 2017. The honor guard’s primary function is to support funerals, but when not performing funeral honors the honor guard team is available to post colors or perform flag-folding ceremonies for special events and retirements on base. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Suzanna Plotnikov
Keesler Air Force Base Honor Guard members practice flag folding procedures before a funeral ceremony Oct. 26, 2017, at the Biloxi National Cemetery in Biloxi, Mississippi. The honor guard’s primary function is to support funerals, but when not performing funeral honors the honor guard team is available to post colors or perform flag folding ceremonies for most special events and retirements on base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Suzanna Plotnikov)
Honor guard brings new perspective for Airman
Keesler Air Force Base Honor Guard members practice flag folding before a funeral ceremony at the Biloxi National Cemetery in Biloxi, Miss., Oct. 26, 2017. The honor guard’s primary function is to support funerals, but when not performing funeral honors the honor guard team is available to post colors or perform flag-folding ceremonies for special events and retirements on base. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Suzanna Plotnikov
Photo By: Airman 1st Class Suzanna Plotnikov
VIRIN: 171026-F-BZ793-051

Each Keesler Honor Guard member goes through several months of training to be proficient in the skills required to post the colors and fold the flag and serve as a member of the firing party or as a pallbearer. Despite learning to maintain a stoic demeanor, execute precise facing movements and maintain a meticulous uniform, when it comes time to do their jobs, honor guard members can face unexpected challenges.

Arriving to his first funeral at a dark, cloudy rain-filled New Orleans cemetery Graham said he had to focus on keeping his military bearing to present the proper military honors for a grieving family.

Change of Plan

“It was raining several days prior to the funeral so the cemetery was run-down, the tombstones were folded over and weeds were growing everywhere,” Graham said. “There was two inches of muddy water throughout all the gravesites, so it gave it a really disturbing look. The whole group was trying to get our bearing to figure out each honor guardsman’s position.”

The final handing off of the flag to the next of kin can be one of the most memorable parts of a military funeral. Like some parts of life, not every situation goes to plan and for Graham, handing the flag to the mourning family at his first funeral was no exception.

“The family showed up to the funeral 30 minutes early so we had to improvise,” he said. “There were tons of people in a small area so it gave me a claustrophobic feeling. There was nowhere for the family to sit so I had to hand the flag to someone who was standing up instead of the norm of them sitting down.”

Looking into the eyes of someone you don’t know and handing them the U.S. flag may bring a sense of sadness to anyone, but according to Graham, this last moment of each military funeral reinvigorates each honor guardsman to perform better at each funeral.

“They’re crying and they’re thankful; you’re kind of healing their sadness a little bit,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been very appreciative of, and I think that’s what reignites the fire into most of the honor guard teams whenever they’re handing off that flag.”

Graham said he wouldn’t have had a chance to experience the sense of pride and patriotism that comes with performing honor guard duties if it weren’t for his superiors. After speaking to his mentor, Graham realized he was going to be a part of something much bigger than himself and possibly the last time some families have contact with the military.

“Most people who aren’t affiliated with military don’t really know what to expect from military members and this might be the first and last time they see a military member,” he said. “They can see how passionate we are and it instills some sense of pride in America and gives them hope that there are people who are still willing to do what needs to be done … even as an honor guardsman.”