TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Earlier this year, my supervisor asked me, “Hey Carnell, would you mind going to Honor Guard training starting Monday?”
My first thoughts were that something must have changed with my wingman’s schedule in our shop. We both intended doing Honor Guard and our leadership chose him to go first. As I had planned on going second, I was not looking forward to the sudden schedule change.
My response to my supervisor was, “Yes, ma’am.”
To be honest, I was extremely intimidated and nervous about going. Prior to heading off to training week, I heard that Honor Guard training is very intense and similar to Basic Military Training.
I still thought to myself, “Everything happens for a reason. I will gain a lot as an Airman if I go.”
On Sunday night, I rolled around in bed, feeling restless and anxious about the next day’s training.
For the first day, I was told to dress in blues and be prepared for inspection upon arrival. As I finally felt confident enough with my dress blues, I drove to the HG building.
I showed up about an hour early and stood there waiting with other HG applicants. All of us were asking similar questions in regard to how the next week of our lives was going to be. No one could have anticipated the challenge.
Right at 8 a.m., we heard the clicking of spurs from the boots getting louder and louder. It would be a familiar sound to those who have gone through BMT and heard their military training instructor walking around.
A sergeant with a very crisp Airman Battlefield Uniform centered himself in front of the flight and stood at attention with a thousand-yard stare.
“FLIGHT, TENCH HUT!” yelled Staff Sgt. Steven Flynn, Travis Air Force Base Honor Guard lead instructor.
All of us stood at attention and waited for the next command. Flynn then spoke to the class with a firm voice stating how training week will go and what will be tolerated. Many Airmen in the class realized then and there that this training would not be like any other.
One thing that separated this training from others was how the first day went. We practiced with 17-pound rifles for around six hours and learned facing movements for another four. We were told if our blisters or hands hurt too much, tape was available.
It was after a short break in training we realized one HG applicant had dropped out.
At this time, I thought to myself, “Maybe I don’t want to be in the HG either, and if everything happens for reason, why did I accept this opportunity?”
However, I knew that this week, like last week, would come to an end. I was at this training course for a reason. I didn’t know why yet, but I kept trying as best I could throughout the week. I thought to myself, “If I don’t become a guardsman, I’ll leave here knowing I tried.”
Training week was a 10-day course condensed into four. The trainers taught us how to perform a firing party, pallbearing, urn sequences and a complete new way for standing at attention, facing movements and marching.
Most of us made it through to graduation where we performed a retiree ceremony for a late U.S. Air Force service member as if it was an actual ceremony. Our class presented this in front of our respective leadership. My heart was beating so fast because I still did not feel 100 percent confident in my firing party movements.
One of our goals in the HG is to be crisp, swift and motionless. With only four excruciating practice days, not all of us were up to par. For graduation, I was one Airman who wasn’t.
Travis HG practices for three hours prior to every funeral. The practice is much needed and gives us the time to perfect the services to perform each day.
At first, I felt going to funerals would be alright. I will simply show up and do what the HG expects of me. After I completed my first funeral as a guardsmen, I understood the importance of the mission.
During one of my first funerals, I held the position of handing off the flag to the next-of-kin. It was at this point, after the flag was handed off, I realized why I was there.
I remember standing in the rain waiting for the family’s arrival. I was assigned with Flynn and was nervous. I wasn’t nervous because I didn’t know what to do, but because when I saw the family grieving over their lost loved one, I knew I might be a part of their last Air Force interaction.
Flynn and I marched side by side to the urn table and performed the flag-fold sequence. Upon completion of the flag fold, he stepped off to the bugle and played it. When Flynn finished playing Taps and began rendering a salute, it was time to hand off the flag.
In absolute silence, besides the sound of my shoe taps hitting the floor, I centered myself to the next-of-kin. I started kneeling down, pushing the flag away from my chest toward his lap while taking my forward stare to his eyes, all in one motion. He looked back at me with eyes full of tears. I started giving my hand-off speech, “On behalf of the President of the United States…” He lost all composure. He started gasping for air because he was sobbing so heavily. He reached out for the flag and put his hands over mine.
While both of us were holding the flag, I had to continue with my speech as if I wasn’t affected even slightly. “Thank you, for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” I went from kneeling to attention, rendered a salute to the flag on his lap and marched away.
It is true service before self to be a guardsman. Being a guardsman may be the last time a family will see an Airman. All of the countless hours that went into me becoming a guardsman opened my eyes to why taking opportunities can be so great.
I didn’t want to go to the HG when I did, but I learned so much about myself and the core values that have been preached to me since I joined the Air Force.
I am thankful to be a Travis Guardsman, a title which I don’t take lightly and will keep to the highest standard, set by my predecessors and continued by my successors.
Even though this opportunity wasn’t one I necessarily wanted to do, I loved the experience, grew as an Airman and became a guardsman.
I strongly suggest taking opportunities, even the ones you don’t want. You never know how much you’ll grow from them if you don’t take them. So, fellow Airmen… Seize your opportunity.