“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
Those words are not taken lightly by the small percentage of Wyoming Army National Guard personnel who join the Military Funeral Honors team and utter those words, while kneeling and handing a carefully-folded American flag to the loved one of a fallen service member.
In order to perform the solemn ritual, a soldier must learn, practice and perfect all the disciplines involved in a military funeral, in addition to looking sharp and staying focused.
Six such soldiers just completed the 40-hour level one course at Wyoming’s 213th Regimental Training Institute at Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center, and joined the ranks of guardsmen qualified to perform honors in the state, and to wear the ARNG Honor Guard tab on their sleeve.
Laura Ward, the state’s Military Funeral Honors coordinator, said the soldiers must complete an eight-hour basic training class and take part in at least 10 services before gaining acceptance into the 40-hour course. She has an active roster of 61 soldiers who travel about 3,000 miles a month to conduct an average of 20 services a month, “to honor every veteran that passes away.”
“It is a no-fail mission,” she said. “We have not missed a funeral in three years. Only a road closure or an accident could stop us.”
Ward pointed to a recent Friday, on a drill weekend, that presented an extreme challenge to the mission.
“We had five services, all around the state, including one with full honors—but we did it,” she explained.
Pvt. Austin Krueger has focused on becoming an Honor Guard member for most of his 2 1/2-year career.
“I think it’s very honorable and respectable to be able to give the family that special and memorable last moment with their loved one,” the young infantryman said. “I heard about the program two years ago when I was with the 960th (Brigade Support Battalion) and I’ve been trying to get into this class since.”
As part of their final exam, Krueger and his classmates were ordered to stand at attention, for an hour, in their dress uniform and answer questions from the cadre, who much like a pack of drill sergeants at basic training, grilled the students with questions about all things military, including history, weapons and the ribbons on their uniform.
“We didn’t do this just for fun,” said Sgt. 1st Class Bou Harrold, following the stressful session. Harrold, a guest instructor, who is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Idaho Army National Guard’s Military Funeral Honors program, continued, “We do this because you have to have composure. There may be all kinds of distractions at a funeral. You are held to a very high standard and must stay composed regardless of what’s happening. Families may ask you questions. You are the experts. A huge part of our job is to know the heritage of the Army and to be able to explain all these shiny badges and ribbons on the uniform and to know all things drill and ceremony.”
Brig. Gen. Greg Porter, Wyoming National Guard director of the joint staff, emphasized the importance of the program at a graduation ceremony that afternoon.
“What you do is critically important to the families and that is why it is so important that even the tiniest of details are executed to perfection. They’re appreciative of that level of professionalism in all these ceremonies and all those going forward,” Porter told the class. “What you’re doing here today exhibits every single one of our Army values. From leadership all the way down to personal courage. There is not a more trusted event that we put in your hands. I just want to say thank you because it’s another sacrifice on your part. You took 40 hours out of your life to come up here and to make sure that the ceremonies we’ve been doing for over 200 years for the National Guard, continue at the high standard they’ve always been done. That tab on your shoulder is indicative of how much training you’ve done, and you’ve got to wear it proudly because you’ve earned it and unfortunately you’re probably going to keep earning it.”
Ward added that Wyoming’s program could use more volunteers, especially with the upcoming mobilization of several hundred soldiers next year.
“We can always use more people,” she said. “With the deployment, we’re a little worried we may lose perhaps 50 percent.”
If you’d like to get on board with the Honor Guard, please email Ward at: firstname.lastname@example.org.