KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss --
Some people see the honor guard when they’re performing their duties; attending funerals, parades, presenting colors and firing their rifles. They may not know what goes on behind the scenes, or what goes on in their minds.
For Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Graham, Keesler Air Force Base Honor Guard Delta Flight NCO in charge, honor guard, a year-long contract, was not what he expected it to be.
“When I joined honor guard I didn’t know a lot about it,” said Graham. “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, flag folding, firing party and pallbearer skills but despite their training to have a stoic persona, precise facing movements and meticulous uniform, they face difficulties as well.
Arriving to his first funeral at a dark, cloudy rain-filled New Orleans cemetery Graham had to focus on keeping his military bearing to present the proper funeral military honors for 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,” said Graham. “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 remembered parts of a military funeral. Like some parts 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,” said Graham. “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.”
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 but according to Graham, this last moment of each military funeral reinvigorates each honor guardsman 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 possibly 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,” said Graham. “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.”