JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, WASHINGTON -- When Staff Sgt. Jennifer Powell joined the Body Bearers team, she was one of two women to do so since 1972. As a U.S. Air Force Honor Guard pallbearer, Powell is part of an eight-person team responsible for carrying the remains of deceased servicemembers, their dependents, senior and national leaders to their final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. The bearers begin by removing the casket from the caisson used to transport the deceased to the grave site. Caskets can weigh anywhere from 600 to 800 pounds. The team carries the fallen to the grave site while keeping the casket perfectly level and without showing any visible signs of strain as military bearing must be maintained at all times. The length of the carry can easily exceed 60 yards.
"It takes quite a bit to become a part of the bearers, and to meld into the team that they already have," Powell said. "The reason for that is because it requires a certain amount of strength to be a part of the team, and if you don't have the strength they need, it could make your teammates weaker." All pallbearers are held to the same physical requirements. Powell is one of two females currently qualified to perform the duty.
"The two of us really wanted to be part of the team, so we worked hard to achieve the same standards and weight requirements as the men," Powell said. When Powell joined the Air Force 10 years ago, she enlisted as a dental assistant. But after personally experiencing the impacts of the honor guard, she was inspired to get involved. "My close uncle passed away while I was stationed overseas. I was able to be there when he was given military honors," Powell said. "To have the military present and lay him to rest was memorable and brought tears to my eyes." Before serving as a pallbearer with the Air Force Honor Guard, Powell volunteered to be part of the base honor guard at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.
"I did honor guard duty in addition to being a dental assistant, but the urge to do it on a grander scale grew. I wanted to play a bigger role; not only as a ceremonial guardsman, but also as a person," she said. Powell joined the team a year-and-a-half ago and has contributed to more than 150 funerals since then. At each funeral, in addition to carrying the casket, the pallbearers hold the flag taut and level at rigid attention until the service is complete. Next, the flag is folded and presented to the next-of-kin. "My first funeral at Arlington was overwhelming. I've done several positions since I've been here and they all give me a different aspect," Powell said. "It always reminds me of my uncle. I feel a big sense of pride in what I do, and it's very fulfilling." Powell insists that, with determination, it is very possible for other females to join the team as well. "To be one of the first female pallbearers is pretty cool," Powell said. "But honestly, any female can do it if they want it and have the motivation and drive." The Air Force Honor Guard is one of two ceremonial units operating under the 11th Operations Group, 11th Wing, Air Force District of Washington. The pallbearers or "Body Bearers" make up one unit of the Air Force Honor Guard. Other Air Force Honor Guard units include: Colors Flight, Drill Team, Firing Party, Training Flight and Pentagon Tours.