ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. | With ice planted across a field of snow, three Airmen bury their hands into the frozen wasteland and at the command of “ready — up,” their rigid hands clasp a triad of M-14 rifles and position them next to their right foot.
The wind bellows over the rolling hills of the cemetery, only noticeable for the lack of sound in every other place. With a sharp click of the heels and turning toward a group resting in a dimly lit room, the ritual commences.
The command is given. The rifles are positioned. Each fire three rounds to signify the honor and respect for a deceased service member, followed by a bugle playing Taps. Tears are shed. The Airmen remain emotionless, yet proud as the flag is passed on for the last time.
Their mission successful, they march away with only the sounds of metal scraping against concrete as the Ellsworth Air Force Base Honor Guard leave a funeral detail.
“Our mission is to provide military funeral honors for active duty, retired and veterans who served honorably in the Armed Forces,” said Senior Airman Gerald Mackey, Jr., honor guard flight trainer assigned to the 28th Munitions Squadron.
From the most detached hamlet with a churchyard or a national cemetery located in one of three different states, the honor guard reports to any location and represents, possibly, the last moment people will have with the military.
“Ellsworth covers more than 110,000 square miles in South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska,” said Senior Airman Kirstin McNally, honor guard flight lead assigned to the 28th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “It is the second largest honor guard area of operation in the Air Force. We have all the counties in South Dakota, eight in Nebraska and seven in Wyoming.”
Military funerals fall into three categories: retiree, which require a seven person team consisting of six pallbearers and a firing-party commander; veteran’s funeral, which requires two Airmen to fold the flag and play Taps afterwards; and finally an active-duty funeral, this sequence needs at least 21 Airmen with six pallbearers, a four person colors team, eight riflemen, a presiding official and two spares to act as cues throughout the event.
The honor guard spends 18 hours a week perfecting their movements for these details. Each day can consist of a cremation sequence or a casket-carry, which is all dependent on what the deceased service member requested.
While the ceremony varies by categories, Airmen have to train on a variety of details such as the march up sequence beginning with the sound of cold metal grating against concrete, the colors and remains carry when all eyes stare while families witness the final time their loved one will move, the flag folding only with the sound of tears hitting the floor, firing party and the presentation of the flag to the next-of-kin to show the appreciation that the military has for the deceased.
“Every day they have the ability to find something to work on, whether it is with facing movements or using their command voice,” McNally explained. “There shouldn’t be a moment of ‘I already know this,’ or ‘I don’t need to practice anymore.’”
In the past year, the honor guard has performed more than 200 funerals in their area of jurisdiction. McNally explained that even though these details are common, there is no room for failure because even though it is an everyday thing to the guardsmen, it is an unfortunate one-time event for the next-of-kin. For the families, this everyday detail means so much more.
On a board filled two inches thick with letters saying thank you, the honor guard can look back and see what the impact of their job really has.
One letter reads “Your service and commitment provided a tremendous comfort in our time of grief and was moving, thought provoking and empowering. As a former Air Force member, I realize that your service on the honor guard is purely voluntary and for this reason is even more appreciated.”
With these words, the work and training the Ellsworth team undergoes benefits every detail they go to.
The letter finishes with “I know that you would just say that you ‘are just doing your job.’ That is pretty much what heroes always say, isn’t it? Your presence means more than you can possibly know. We thank you for your service.”
To serve in the honor guard isn’t to get prestige or a random ribbon or two. It is about giving honors to those who deserve recognition for their service.