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An Emotional Machine; A Guardsman's Struggle

A Joint Base Andrews Honor Guardsman poses for a photo Nov. 07. 2014. The American flag is presented as it is during funerals for deceased military vetarans when passing the flag to the next-of-kin. (U.S. Air Force photo/SSgt Nichelle Anderson)

A Joint Base Andrews Honor Guardsman poses for a photo Nov. 07. 2014. The American flag is presented as it is during funerals for deceased military vetarans when passing the flag to the next-of-kin. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nichelle Anderson)

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- Look sharp, but move fluidly. Be crisp in movement, yet smooth in motion. Appear motionless and do not show any emotion (if you can).

This is the delicate balance a Joint Base Andrews Air Force base honor guardsman faces.

I didn't know what it meant to be a guardsman for most of my life. I would watch movies and television shows growing up and usually only see them at a funeral.

I would see a similar scene in each instance. A small crowd of people standing around a casket, ranging from stoic onlookers to grieving family members clinging to each other for emotional support.

The same order of events would take place. The flag folding over the casket, the rifle party off in the distance, the bugler playing "Taps," and then finally the climax of the scene happens.

The one remaining guardsman stands near the casket holding the American flag, it is folded with such precision that it could cut the gloves holding it, yet cradled ever so gently, like a mother carrying her newborn baby.

He would slowly walk with purpose over to the widow and get down on one knee. Then hand the flag to her, look her in the eye and say something along the lines of: "On behalf of the President of the United States, the Department of (insert branch here), and a grateful nation, we offer our nation's flag for the faithful and honorable service of your loved one."

This is the condolence given to the next-of-kin in what could very likely be the last interaction they have with the military for the rest of their life.

Every moment was building up to the passing of the flag and the message of condolence. When it was my turn to experience this for myself, all I could think at the time was, "don't screw it up, don't screw it up."

There is one thing the cinematic version of this real life event doesn't tell you; it's difficult to distance yourself emotionally from the pain that you're specifically trained to be in the heart of.

It's seemed like a mystery to me at first why someone would want to be in that position.

The honor guard was not something I initially thought I wanted to do and for good reason; who enjoys going to funerals? It's blunt to say it that way, but is there really a simpler way to put it?

I came into the Air Force as photojournalist. My job was to capture the Air Force story, which would sadly include funerals.

My mission was to be a fly on the wall and take pictures for the family. I have been to Arlington National Cemetery many times for all kinds of funerals, whether they be full or standard honors.

The tsunami of emotion the families projected never got to me because I was just the guy with a camera hopping from one odd spot to the other trying to get the perfect shot. Never interfere with the ceremony, just do the job I was trained to.

I dodged emotion because I could always tell myself, "Well, at least I'm not a part of this."

The irony of my thoughts does not escape me as I write these words.

This past summer, my supervisor walked around the office asking if anyone wanted to join base honor guard. I didn't think much of the opportunity at first, except that it would be a unique experience and great bullet on my profile.

I knew it would only be a part-time duty for the next year and I could walk away at the end of the day saying that I paid my respects to those who wore the uniform before me.

So, I said yes, signed the paperwork and awaited my training. Several months later, I walked into the honor guard training facility down the road to begin a very repetitive and but necessary training course.

Every day we learned a different step-by-step process for each type of ceremony the honor guard takes part in.

Two-person flag folds for a retirement ceremony versus a six-person fold for standard honors funerals. Firing party cadences for a funeral versus rifle positions for a colors party. Calling commands for colors and hoping to God you don't drop the flag, lest you become "that guy" and now we have to burn our national symbol.

The list goes on and on.

After spending weeks of training, for hours a day, and doing many missions across the National Capital Region, I can comfortably say that's not what honor guard is all about.

Wearing the ceremonial uniform has a much deeper and poignant meaning to it.

Despite the fact that paying respect to our deceased veterans is congressionally mandated, there's a statement I remember from Chaplain (Col.) Charles Cornelisse, 11th Operations Group Arlington Senior Air Force Chaplain at Arlington, when I was interviewing him for another story.

He said, "If the military gets nothing else right, at least we know the most important thing to do for these families of our brothers and sisters in uniform, is to pay our respects and show how much we appreciate their service to this country."

That's the quintessential point of honor guard.

Honor guard has taught me a great deal, but there's one thing you can't be taught no matter how much training you do.

Until you kneel before a somber-eyed stranger and look at their tears, you cannot truly grasp the near indescribable feeling of saying thank you for service of someone who you didn't even know, but still respect.

I had to stare into the very face of despair and loss, but fight the human reaction of wanting to wrap my arms around that hurting soul and say it's going to be ok. Then, to remove myself from the situation, I let go of the flag I so intently held with snow white gloves wrapped around my hands, almost as if I wasn't worthy to touch it.

I stand up to render a final salute and then turn away. I'm careful to never turn to my back so as not insult the flag, but just enough to the side to face away from the grief-stricken eyes staring at me. Finally, I march off.

Moving with flawless motion like a machine, but still showing the ideal values of compassion, veneration and honor is difficult.

I like to refer to what every troop in basic training hears when pushing through that last set of push-ups or the last lap around the track. "It doesn't get easier, you just get better."

Funerals won't get any less miserable, but you learn to take in the glum reality of losing a sibling in arms and deliver the reverence that person, the uniform and flag deserves.

My honor guard trainers told me that these hard moments just come with the job. However, it's important to remember that we are there for the families, because that last show of respect is all for them.

Wearing the ceremonial uniform is a calling that demands discipline, duty and dignity. I say the words, "thank you for your service," knowing someday, someone else is going to say the same thing to my family.