WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team members displayed their skill at a Joint Service Drill Team Exhibition on the National Mall during the 101st National Cherry Blossom Festival here April 13. Between the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and its iconic reflecting pool, the 12 Drill Team members joined their sister services in a friendly competition for the audience's attention and were rewarded with cheering and applause. Proving their commitment to the Air Force's core value "excellence in all we do," the team presented their performance with smooth precision. Behind the reflection of their sleek, tinted sunglasses, no emotion or strain was detectable to the masses. The Air Force team uses fully-functional, bayonet-tipped M1 Garand rifles that weigh just shy of 11 pounds. Their professionally choreographed sequence includes high-speed weapon maneuvers, rifle tosses, complex weapon exchanges, and a walk through a gauntlet of spinning weapons. The movements are unforgivingly timed and finely tuned, leaving no room for error. The highlight of the performance featured a stationary drill commander, flanked by four team members who simultaneously hurled their weapons over and around him.
First Lt. Michael Lemorie, the Drill Team flight commander, routinely places himself directly in the hands of his most experienced Airmen during the highly dangerous maneuver that snaps bayonets mere inches past his face.
"To be out there, as their leader, demonstrates the trust I have in them and I think epitomizes the trust that our Air Force leaders need to have today," Lemorie said. "Our senior leaders have to trust that the Airmen following them are going to do what they need to do to correctly and proficiently keep this nation safe. "So to be a visible representation of that trust is just the most humbling and honoring experience I have been a part of," he said. "I will not flinch, I will not move. They can hit me or stab me in the side. But until it's time for me to move, I will stand and keep that trust and resolve." The maneuvers of the drill team are often dangerous and injuries to wrist and hands are common.
What seemed accurate and flawless to the uninitiated observer, during the festival performance almost went dangerously wrong.
During a movement called "reverse unders," two weapons touched mid-air, forcing Senior Airman Billy Degraffenreid to catch the weapon in an unconventional way -- saving the day for the team while taking a quarter-size cut through his glove. "The weapon didn't fully rotate, so the bayonet was coming straight toward me," Degraffenreid said. "Instead of pulling back my hand to let it drop, I just grabbed (the bayonet) and held on to it." Despite the initial pain, Degraffenreid did not betray the near-miss.
After nearly four years on the team, he is one of the most experienced members and has learned to keep a straight face.
"You just do what you have to do, and push through," he said.
While this year's event was not a competition for a trophy, Lemorie said he always prepares his men to do their best.
"We are the harshest critics on ourselves," Lemorie said. "So the competition is always on, and when we're not competing against the other services, we're certainly competing against ourselves." The training for the Drill Team is highly selective and begins with a rigorous eight-week course, teaching the fundamentals of precision drill and continues with ever-demanding daily training. Even the right to be part of a drill is earned, said Lemorie, adding that Airmen challenge each other for a spot in the formation.
"There is competition internally all the time, because the Airmen want to perform, they want their work to show off," Lemorie said. "The only way they can do that is to beat out somebody for a spot." Performing in front of an international audience during the special occasion of the National Cherry Blossom Festival put additional pressure on the team. The festival, which celebrates the gift of the cherry blossom trees to Washington, D.C., in 1912 and the enduring friendship between the United States and Japan, attracts thousands of viewers every year. "We put in a lot of training and a lot of hours for this," Lemorie said. "And it was one of the better performances we had this season -- it wasn't perfect, but still a very good drill. Now we get back into training mode and train our imperfections out. It's a never-ending cycle."