Honor Guardsman Reflects on True Meaning of Military Funerals

Airmen from the Ellsworth Air Force Base’s Honor Guard move the casket of a retiree during a funeral at Black Hills National Cemetery in Sturgis, S.D., Sept. 26, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Airman Nicolas Z. Erwin)
Airmen from the Ellsworth Air Force Base’s Honor Guard move the casket of a retiree during a funeral at Black Hills National Cemetery in Sturgis, S.D., Sept. 26, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Airman Nicolas Z. Erwin)

Nicolas Erwin is a public affairs airman with the 28th Bomb Wing out of Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.

"On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation of your loved one's honorable and faithful service."

These words hold weight heavier than any munition or military aircraft. These are the final words a family hears once their late loved one is given a funeral with military honors.

Throughout the first 19 years of my life, I never witnessed a funeral.

All that would change when I signed my name on the dotted line to commit to serving as an Ellsworth Air Force Base honor guardsman.

My 183-day honor guard commitment began with an initial two-week training period relearning drill movements, commands and memorizing three creeds that I've repeated 86 times at ceremonies. After graduating the training class, I represented the base at 12 retirement ceremonies, two changes of command and other miscellaneous events.

Most important was the progressive understanding and execution of funerals.

Our first lesson was the importance of remaining stoic -- we will never show emotion during a funeral. The funeral is possibly the last remnant of the military a grieving family will see, and we wanted them to see Airmen as professional and committed to highest standards of excellence

I never really understood that mentality until December 2017. I was standing in 10 inches of snow as a car drifted slowly through an open field littered with tombstones. There were only two cars: the hearse carrying the funeral director and the pastor inside and the daughter of the fallen veteran's car.

In a blizzard, the veteran's daughter drove 70 miles from Scenic, South Dakota, population 50, to watch her father be given military funeral honors. In that moment, I realized one thing: A funeral wasn't the final goodbye I thought it was.

A funeral isn't a fleeting moment, or the last time a spouse will think of their lover. It won't be the final time triplets will think of their mother. It is a moment that means a family didn't let someone fade into the past.

In less than six months of serving as an honor guardsmen, I witnessed and participated in 18 funerals all over South Dakota. They ranged from crowds of 200 packed in a Catholic cathedral, to a simple ceremony with the pastor and a friend standing together at a hero's final resting spot overlooking the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis.

These experiences gave me the understanding that the opportunities life presents us with aren't always the most favorable in the moment, but they help us appreciate what they mean.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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