I’d like to begin this new feature by thanking the Veterans’ Chamber for the opportunity to share some thoughts and reflections from my time in uniform, and also to thank our readers for your service or support to those who have served and their families. Lifting up those who have sacrificed for our nation and way of life is noble work, and also very rewarding. It brings to mind some of my earliest experiences as a young Air Force lieutenant and Base Honor Guard officer 31 years ago.
I arrived in Grand Forks North Dakota in the winter of 1992-93 and reported to the 447th Missile Squadron to begin 4 years’ duty as a Minuteman III missile launch officer. I went out to the missile complex around six days a month for a 24 hour alert with my crew partner, and spent the rest of the month on training or administrative duties. Additionally, I volunteered for our base Honor Guard, performing in ceremonies or funeral details all over eastern North Dakota, and as far away as Minneapolis, Minnesota (every Air Force base is responsible to support a larger geographic area to provide final honors when a veteran passes away).
Our Honor Guard was unique in that we had a saber drill team, performing fairly elaborate routines for the public and at base functions. We trained new members with weighted wooden dowels before “graduating” them to actual swords which were flipped, thrown and spun within inches of our colleagues’ ears and noses. I still have a small scar where I skewered myself in the side one afternoon at practice, hopefully serving as an example to the formation on the need for precision and attention to detail!
We took pride in our performances for visiting dignitaries, and put a lot of work into our routines, but we took far more pride in the solemn work of funeral duty. As our readers know, there is a special connection between veterans that manifests itself most profoundly in the ceremony where we lay a warrior to rest. A mistake during a base ceremony was unfortunate, but a mistake during a funeral detail was unforgivable. The family of the departed deserved perfection on that day, and that’s exactly the standard we aimed for. From the arrival graveside to the last notes of Taps and the presentation of our flag to the bereaved (containing in its folds three shell casings from the rifle salute), we understood that we were representing our entire service as the final impression that our brother or sister-in-arms’ loved ones might have of the military, in our case the United States Air Force.
We learned what we could about the patriot we were helping honor, but usually there wasn’t much information. A young NCO gone too soon or a “Greatest Generation” veteran who passed after a long, prosperous life, it didn’t matter to us. They were each heroes. We were almost always overwhelmed by grateful family members afterwards, often inviting the team for a meal, which we politely declined. We’d be surrounded in short order by the other veterans in these small towns, shaking our hands and relishing for those short moments the opportunity to reconnect with their own experiences and younger days in uniform. Then it was back in the van for a couple hours’ drive back home. Packed in tight with our rifles and other gear there was the usual good-natured ribbing and joking after the inevitable fast food stop, which would wane as the miles went by. Those miles afforded ample time for reflection on the life we’d just honored and the connection to something larger that we’d just witnessed and reinforced. It’s been said that the folded flag presented on behalf of a grateful nation is the heaviest weight a service member will carry in their military career. Taking a knee and looking into a widow’s eyes in a remote graveyard on the Dakota prairie, I don’t think I’d dispute it. I’m glad for the opportunity to share a bit, and hope you’re still finding connections to fellow vets and reflecting on the experiences that shaped you.
Until next time, Stay Frosty and Hold the Line.