TUCSON, Ariz. (AFNS) -- This Memorial Day, while Americans gather to remember those who gave their lives for their freedoms, military honor guards will function as central fixtures at cemeteries, parades and solemn observances.
For Tech. Sgt. Michael Brizuela, a full-time F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief at Tucson International Airport, the day is one of a thousand opportunities in his military career to pay his respects in the most profound way he knows how. For the last 30 years he's volunteered for Honor Guard duty.
With military precision, Brizuela has marched in parades, posted the colors, folded flags, carried coffins and played Taps. He's left crowded rooms speechless after performing the POW/MIA ceremony and he's heard the cries of families who have lost loved ones. Most of all, he's heard words of sincere appreciation from fellow Americans for his role in carrying on some of the country's most revered traditions.
"First, I'm grateful I can still do it," he said. "Life has been good to me and as such I need to give back. I see it as a small return for the blessings I've been given. I don't consider 30 years to be an achievement. I consider this to be part of what is expected of me given the traits I've been taught. The honor guard is about honoring the country and those who have served it. This Memorial Day my thoughts will be with them."
Only months after graduating from Tucson's Amphitheater High School in 1981, he reported to Marine Corps basic training. He began his career as an aircraft maintainer for F-4 Phantoms at Naval Air Station Dallas - his honor guard duties were performed on his own time. Memorial Day 1982 was his first detail where he helped post the colors for a ceremony at Laurel Land Cemetery in Dallas.
In 1983 Brizuela performed at a funeral where Taps was played from a tape recording and a set of speakers. The recording didn't sit well with the young Marine. The next day he spent $300 on a trumpet and began taking music lessons just to lean to play the 24-note song.
"I remember practicing at my barracks, driving people crazy," he said. "Once I played Taps at a funeral I was locked into doing that. I was the only bugler in the area so I was very busy playing at ceremonies all over."
During his 10 years with the Marine Corps, he performed at an average of three funerals per week.
In 1991 he moved back to Tucson to be near his family. He enlisted in the Arizona Air National Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing and was instantly drawn to the unit's honor guard.
"One day I was leaving the hangar wearing my service dress and carrying my trumpet to play Taps at my uncle's funeral. Someone saw me and asked where I was going, so I told him. The next day my first sergeant told me I was going to join the wing's honor guard."
Since then, Brizuela established himself as one of the unit's most dedicated honor guard volunteers, said Master Sgt. Frank Enfinger, the team manager.
"Let me put it this way, he once performed a detail on his wedding day," said Enfinger. "We can always count on him and there's nothing he won't do. He would even try to come home early from [temporary duty] to help with a detail if we needed him."
"Breezy was the honor guard member of the year for the Arizona Air National Guard in 2009. He deserved that recognition and he deserves it now for completing 30 years."
Brizuela openly acknowledges the emotional toll of honor guard duty. His most difficult details were at funerals for co-workers and friends, or when he presented the folded U.S. flag to grieving mothers and widows with a solemn speech in either English or Spanish:
-- On behalf of the President of the United States and the people of a grateful nation, may I present this flag as a token of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service your loved one rendered this nation. May God bless you, and may God bless your family.
"It's very powerful," Brizuela said. "And when you do it in Spanish it's even more powerful because you are reaching out to the family and reminding them that service and sacrifice knows no language barriers."
According to Brizuela, the honor guard reminds servicemembers of their traditions as well as why they wear the uniform. "And it shows the public that their military is professional and its people reflect qualities that inspire confidence," he said. "It makes people feel good about their country and the people on the front lines protecting it."