Misawa Honor Guard: Upholding tradition
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- He had practiced the movements and primed his uniform for the moment he passed the expertly folded U.S. flag to an Air Force retiree. As the ceremonial handover occurred, he could feel the importance of the flag--a representation of the retiree's service to the United States.
Senior Airman William D. Klein, a 35th Civil Engineer Squadron pavement and construction equipment journeyman, is part of the Misawa Honor Guard. At Misawa Air Base, community members see these Airmen representing the U.S. Air Force through skillfully performed ceremonies.
Behind-the-scenes, hours of practice and preparation provide the groundwork for these ceremonial performances, better known as details. Various details perfect the U.S. Air Force image and preserve the service's heritage.
"When my military basic training instructor endorsed the Air Force Honor Guard and the group's members visited my flight, I became motivated to join," Klein said.
While Klein joined after meeting with the Air Force Honor Guard, other members were inspired by a family tie to the tradition.
"My father said he had some of the best times of his life in honor guard," said Airman 1st Class Taylor McPeek, a 35th Communications Squadron client systems technician and honor guardsmen. "Upon arriving here, I wanted to follow in his footsteps."
Airmen curious about what joining honor guard entails are introduced during an orientation where they are shown the facility and given an explanation of expectations and requirements. At Misawa AB, honor guard members commit to a one-year period on the team during which they attend two to three practices each week and perform details both during and after work.
"At my first practice I was intimidated, but as they went into what honor guard is all about, I became really interested," Klein said. "Now I've been in for two years."
During the second practice, recruits begin training. Depending on how quickly information is absorbed, newcomers train for an average of two months; upon completion they are evaluated.
"My evaluation consisted of studying the standing, rifle and staff manuals, understanding posting sequence and reciting the honor guard charge," McPeek explained. "On top of that, I completed a 30-minute stamina test requiring [me to hold] the flag in various positions."
Once an individual passes their evaluation, they're issued uniform items and are then able to perform details.
"We practice for details including cordons and retreats," Klein said. "This training allows for honor guard trainers to instruct and give tips to members."
Cordons are performed for distinguished visitors, award banquets and senior NCO induction ceremonies mainly staffed by members outside the honor guard.
"Oftentimes, other people want to do ceremonies or give the honors at a retirement ceremony," said Klein. "This is a good opportunity for us to train others so the heritage and knowledge is spread outside honor guard."
Honor guard members are also assigned administrative and training jobs to create structure within the group.
"Administrative members are in charge of getting us details, logging them and keeping track of our numbers so we can put in awards packages and decorations," Klein said. "Trainers build the next generation and the team. There's more work required besides going out and putting the flags in the stands."
Upon acquiring the position of trainer, NCO in charge or superintendent, the Misawa AB Honor Guard sends Airmen to an eight-day Air Force training course at Bolling Air Force Base, District of Columbia.
"The Air Force Honor Guard holds a course for standardization since they make all our manuals, rules and standards," said Klein. "The training focuses on funerals, colors and firing party."
Behind-the-scenes preparation does not stop there. Honor guardsmen spend hours ensuring uniforms are in top-notch condition as well as learning protocols and drill ceremonies that are not typically performed at Misawa AB, but prepare Airmen for future assignments.
Although the Misawa AB Honor Guard's mission doesn't include providing funerals to active duty, retirees and veterans, the ability to perform such a moving ceremony is something members often seek, said Klein.
"In a lot of cases, you're the last vision of the Air Force the family will ever see," said Klein. "It's about honoring that member."
To further honor Air Force members, past and present, honor guard members don't wear name tapes on their ceremonial uniforms due to their sole purpose of representing the service's ancestry.
"In our day-to-day jobs we don't often think about what our predecessors have done or the amazing things that have happened under the banner of our flag," said Klein. "But performing these ceremonies highlights [the heritage]."
Klein stressed the significant impact honor guard has on Airmen when they step back into their Air Force careers and personal lives.
"My job as a construction worker once seemed separate from honor guard, but I now notice ways to connect the heritage by talking about honor guard and its values in the workplace," said Klein. "It's an amazing thing to be part of representing what the Air Force really means."