By Air Force Airman 1st Class Suzanna Plotnikov 81st Training Wing
KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss., Nov. 14, 2017 — People see honor guard members participating in funerals or parades or presenting the colors at various events. They may not know what goes on behind the scenes, or what goes on in the members' minds.
For Air Force Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Graham, noncommissioned officer in charge of the base honor guard's Delta Flight here, the year-long honor guard contract has not been what he expected it to be.
"When I joined honor guard, I didn't know a lot about it," Graham said. "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."
Each Keesler honor guard member goes through several months of training to be proficient in posting the colors, folding the flag, and participating in funerals as pallbearers or as members of the firing party. But despite their training to project a stoic persona and perform precise facing movements while wearing meticulously maintined uniforms, they face difficulties as well.
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 render the proper funeral military honors in front of a grieving family.
"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," he 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. As with other aspects 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."
Motivated to Perform Well
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, Graham said this last moment of each military funeral reinvigorates each honor guard member to perform better at each funeral.
"They're crying and they're thankful; you're kind of healing their sadness a little bit," Graham 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 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, a prior chief master sergeant, Graham realized he was going to be a part of something much bigger than himself and that he would be present for what possibly could be 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."