By Senior Airman Ryan Lackey, 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 23, 2018
FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- I realized I was witnessing an amazing process as I peered through the camera on a hazy August day, snapping picture after picture of Airmen transforming into something greater; my former distain slowly becoming a desire to partake of this special duty as well.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; this began a few weeks ago.
It was a surprise to receive a message declaring my selection to serve in the base’s Honor Guard, but I had to admit that I knew little about them, so I asked a coworker that had been in the program before for some advice.
“You might think it’ll be tough and no-fun at first,” said Staff Sgt. Nicolo Daniello, former 92nd Air Refueling Wing Honor Guardsman. “But, you’ll see, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done here.”
My coworker’s comments reflected the sentiments of many who made a point of congratulating me on the selection in the following days, but it didn’t dispel my ill-conceived notion of spending months in service dress and standing expressionless before crowds during performances for hours, making my selection feel punitive.
I showed up early for the first day of Honor Guard training in my immaculate blues uniform just like every other Airmen awaiting the start of training. The Airmen came from many walks of life on base, from maintenance to finance to security forces, all visibly fretting with first-day at school jitters.
"Yes, I'm a bit anxious as I'm not sure what it'll be like," said Airman 1st Class Rebecca Hartman, 92nd Maintenance Squadron crew chief, as we talked about how we made Honor Guard. "I volunteered for this to get out and do something more than my normal job, so I want to do the best I can!"
I was stunned by her passionate response and felt a twinge of guilt for my sodden attitude, but I could only compliment her spirit before I was interrupted by a summons to the NCO in-charge’s office to discuss a medical concern.
"This is a grand opportunity for anybody to do," Tech. Sgt. Carlos Torres Figueroa, 92nd Air Refueling Wing NCOIC of the base Honor Guard, explained to me as we discussed my temporary medical limitations. "I'm sorry to see you go, but you are welcome to come back to the Honor Guard after your medical condition improves, as I guarantee it will make a better person out of you."
I was torn. The conviction and vigor in which the duty was endorsed by everyone I encountered had made me curious, so I asked Torres Figueroa for a favor: let me document the training and show everyone what serving the Honor Guard is really like.
He smiled and shook my hand in agreement.
Trial by twelve training days
I returned the next day with camera in-hand to the Honor Guard building and stumbled into what appeared to be controlled chaos.
All of the training Airmen and instructors were divided into three groups, each practicing a different aspect of marching and rifle handling, milling about the largest room in the building like ants parading in a formation only they understood.
“It’s amazing to process to see and I never seem to tire of it,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Kamphaus, the upcoming 92nd ARW NCOIC for the base Honor Guard that Torres Figueroa was training to replace him. “I served in the Honor Guard three years ago when I was a junior Airman, but now I get to lead it … this means a lot to me.”
Training for these 21 Airmen would last 12 days and up to 12 hours each day. To maximize the limited time, the Airmen were separated into three groups: Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, and instructors focused on the needs of each group, helping advance together as a team.
The Airmen got used to the training after a few days in and remarked upon the experience during the brief breaks between lessons, never really pausing as they mentally continued to run through the motions even while resting.
“I may not be the best at this, but I’m the NCO, so I must be the example to my Airmen,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Martin, 92nd ARW base Honor Guard. “I’ll put in every effort I have to be the best I can be for them and leave them with the same impression that NCOs I’ve served for have left on me.”
Training spilled into the weekend, but the only change in the training regimen was the duty uniform giving way to civilian clothing as they continued to practice firing party, flag bearing and casket handling.
I began to notice the group’s anxiety blossoming into confidence and even pride for most as they began to move and more fluidly and in unison. I tracked down the Airman I met on the first day and asked what had changed with the group.
“You don’t think about the time and effort it takes to prefect every crisp movement before you’re here,” Hartman said. “We had to work at this together, helping each other improve with critiques and suggestions, as we all wanted to get it perfect.”
I had witnessed how physically demanding and stressful this training had been on the Airmen, so I asked her how she kept a straight face through everything.
“I think if you’ve lost someone you love, you respect this experience more,” Hartman said. “I lost my mother awhile back, so I know it’s hard and makes me want to provide the best funeral ceremony I can give to others who have lost someone.”
“Honor Guard is an emotional job even if we don’t show it, which can be hard for me as an emotional person, so this experience has been good for me.” Hartman added.
Training was in its final days as the trainees focused all their teachings into preparing for a mock funeral ceremony to commemorate the completion of training.
“Everyone is in the process of bettering themselves, so you have to get uncomfortable to grow,” Kamphaus commented to me as we watched the Airmen practice on-stage. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be where you’ve always been.”
I took another picture of the trainees as they carefully folded a casket flag, working together to perfect every detail, and pondered my assumptions I had made when I was originally selected to serve in the Honor Guard.
On the 12th day of training, Aug. 10, 2018, the newest flight of Honor Guard Airmen exhibited their newfound skills, professionalism and teamwork to base leadership; proving that it mattered little what your day job was when re-forged as an Honor Guardsman and performing a representative of the Air Force.
I sought out Kamphaus after the ceremony.
“You know, two weeks ago I felt like being selected for Honor Guard was a punishment,” I told him. “Having seen these Airmen grow so much in just a few days was inspiring. I want serve the Honor Guard too someday soon.”
Kamphaus grinned at me and shook my hand firmly, “I look forward to it sir.”