Dover AFB Honor Guard embodies service before self

  • Published
  • By Mauricio Campino
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

On a foggy, rainy morning in a cemetery just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, friends and family gather to say goodbye to a United States Air Force veteran. His wife and children sit solemnly, holding hands as their minister recounts years of faithful service to family, community and country. A brief moment of silence follows, broken only by the clicking of well-polished heels worn by a young Senior Airman in ceremonial uniform. 

The distant sound of drill commands fill the air as the honor guard march into position. Those gathered watch as the flag is raised and meticulously folded. A symbol of the country he fought to defend. A 21-gun salute follows. Boom. The family holds each other tightly, flinching with each shot. Taps plays in the background as an Airman kneels before the faithful wife of 23 years. Tears flow down her cheeks as she’s presented a tightly folded flag…on behalf of a grateful nation.

“Handpicked to serve as a member of Dover Air Force Base Honor Guard, my standards of conduct and level of professionalism must be above reproach, for I represent all others in my service.” 

More than mere words, this excerpt from the Honor Guard Creed serves as an example and way of life for its 25 active-duty members. 

Each quarter, Airmen from across the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover AFB, Delaware, are meticulously selected to join the Honor Guard ranks. Each member first undergoes a selection process that includes interviews with their unit leadership.

“What Chiefs typically look for in candidates are Airmen who are squared away and have a good level of maturity and responsibility to handle a mission like ours,” said Tech. Sgt. Joshua Curry, 436th Force Support Squadron, Base Honor Guard manager.

After an additional interview with the honor guard manager, those selected are temporarily assigned to the unit for a six-month duration. The first month of their assignment at the honor guard consists of learning and perfecting the precise movements required for various ceremonial events. In addition to supporting ceremonies and events on Dover AFB, the honor guard provides military honors at funerals for U.S. Air Force veterans in Delaware, southern New Jersey, south eastern Pennsylvania, and parts of Maryland. 

“Oftentimes, new members show up feeling reluctant because they didn’t volunteer for this assignment,” said Curry. “But once they start actually serving in ceremonies or funeral services, they literally see the direct impact they are making.” 

The mission of the honor guard is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. Members are employed in a variety of team sizes, ranging from a simple two-Airman flag-folding detail, to a 20-Airman funeral detail that includes pallbearers, colors, a bugle player and a firing party for a 21-gun salute. Each member of a detail has specific roles during a ceremony or funeral, and each member of the honor guard must be ready to step into any role.

“To be a good member of this team you definitely have to understand the importance of the job and put in the time to become proficient at it. Your movements must be sharp and precise,” said Senior Airman Chase Mencheck, 436th Maintenance Squadron munitions stockpile technician. “Nothing is about you, it’s all about representing the Air Force and bringing closure to those families.”

Members adhere to a high standard of proper military appearance. From the hottest summer day to the coldest winter night, performing in sunshine, rain, sleet or snow, military bearing and professionalism are always on display. 

“Anytime we are seen, they don’t just see you or Dover Air Force Base, they see a representation of the U.S. Air Force,” said Airman 1st Class Austin Perez, 736th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief. “I hope to take away the structure that working here has given me and keep that with me for the rest of my life.”

Precision is vital, practice is paramount. Even members who are well into their six-month assignment still practice daily. With so much time spent traveling and working together as a team, members of the honor guard become a very tight-knit group. This becomes very important when dealing with the stress associated with the job.  

“You become very close with the people you work with here and you can tell when someone is feeling down,” said Mencheck. “We definitely depend on each other and lift each other up.” 

The honor guard also counts on the full support from unit leadership as well as the Dover AFB chaplains office to help support mental and emotional health. Each funeral service brings its own set of challenges and emotions. It’s not always the outward displays of grief and mourning typically present at a memorial service that hit you the hardest.

“For me, the most difficult part is when nobody attends the memorial service for a veteran,” said Perez. “When there’s nobody there to support that veteran who served their time, that hurts.”

In recent years the honor guard has seen a noticeable increase in requests for funeral support due to the rise in deaths among Vietnam War veterans. They currently support between 30 and 60 funerals each week and are projected to surpass their annual record. But no matter how strenuous or repetitive the job becomes, each one is uniquely important. With the noticeable need for a larger staff, manpower studies are planned for the near future. The goal is to secure additional funding allowing for members of the U.S. Air Force Reserve to join the honor guard. 

“My biggest challenge, personally, has been the grief aspect of it,” said Airman 1st Class McKenzie Burns, 436th Comptroller Squadron financial technician. “You really feel the family’s grief and pain. As honor guard members, we perform military honors at hundreds of funerals, but to each individual family, those military honors leave a lasting impression. We must give 100 percent effort each time.”