SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Rows of headstones line a pathway to a recently dug grave under a tent which is shielding a family from an intensifying snowfall. A short distance away the sound of ceremonial gunfire punctuates the discreet sobs of loved ones saying their last goodbyes to their beloved Airman.
As the wind carries away the smoke from the rifles, an honor guardsmen approaches the tent and presents a perfectly folded flag to the next-of-kin, hoping to demonstrate to them the appreciation the United States Air Force has for their loved one’s service.
Military funeral honors can be a family’s last impression of the Air Force. The Scott Air Force Base Honor Guard performs a vital service to those who are saying their last goodbyes as they render the honors of a grateful nation.
Month after month, a new class of Airmen from different jobs all over base arrive at the Honor Guard building at Scott to begin training for colors ceremonies, rifle squad, pall bearing and flag folding. Learning to be precise in their techniques and maintain bearing throughout imperfect weather conditions or last minute changes, the Airmen gain a sense of pride while wearing the ceremonial uniform.
“There is a huge sense of pride watching Airmen grow into better honor guardsmen, and even better Airmen while they’re here,” said Master Sgt. Mark Palang, 375th Force Support Squadron honor guard program manager. “During their six-month tour, Airmen have a great opportunity to gain a new perspective on how important our mission is here.”
Spanning 110,000 square miles and six states, Scott AFB’s area of responsibility is one of the largest in the Air Force. At any time, Palang is responsible for up to 44 Airmen covering the area and keeping everything running smoothly.
“It’s an entire team effort,” said Palang. “Everyone here plays a pivotal role, from our scheduling office keeping up with our seemingly never ending requests, but managing to fulfill them all, to our trainers who drill our team until they have achieved excellence across the full spectrum of our duties. We, as a whole, collectively maintain mission success.”
Airman 1st Class Landan Hopkins, 375th Communications Squadron storage and virtualization technician, has been with the Honor Guard for five months and said he has enjoyed seeing a different side of the Air Force away from his regular job.
“Being at Honor Guard has given me more respect for military veterans,” said Hopkins. “It gets me emotional to see the impact these Airmen had on the people who show up to the funerals. Some have three or four people, while others fill churches. No matter the size though, they’re all there to mourn the loss of someone important to them. The fact that this person was willing to sacrifice, leaving these people behind to serve their country, really puts things into perspective for me.”
Hopkins recalled when he first realized the importance of the mission during his first ever detail.
“I spent two weeks training for this funeral detail, but to actually do it gave it real meaning,” said Hopkins. “It made me sit back and think about why we do it and the effect it has on those in attendance. Training is everything in this job. We hold ourselves to such a high standard. We maintain a professional and strict attitude during details. We all work really well together and have a certain connection that helps us work off each other.”
As every Airman knows, there is a difference between training and actually completing the mission. When the Honor Guard isn’t performing for ceremonies or funerals, they spend several hours a week perfecting their techniques, learning to read each other’s body language should any last minute changes arise while pall-bearing, folding a flag, or firing weapons together.
“No detail is ever the same,” said Hopkins. “That means we have to be sharp and in-sync so we can work off of each other, no matter the situation. It’s a great feeling when a detail is performed flawlessly and the service member we’re honoring is laid to rest with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
No matter what is happening around him, Hopkins said he always remains focused on providing a good service for the family.
“After you lose the nerves from the first few details, you learn to block things out until after you present the flag,” said Hopkins. “Once you kneel down to present the flag and look the next of kin in the eyes, you feel an instant connection. You realize exactly why you’re there. That short moment makes the whole honor guard experience worth it.”
Upon arrival and constantly throughout their time at Honor Guard, the importance of this critical mission is stressed to the Airmen.
“We represent every member, past and present, of the United States Air Force, so my expectation is for our Airmen to carry out our mission proficiently and professionally,” said Palang. “A fallen service member is only laid to rest once, we have to get it right and honor the member with dignity.”