By Scott Prater
As Taps echoed throughout the cemetery, Airman 1st Class R.J. Yeomans prepared to present a flag to the son of a deceased Air Force veteran. He walked around the casket to where the young man was sitting, but the distraught fellow refused to look. He simply stared at the casket in a nearly catatonic state. When Airman Yeomans attempted to present the flag, the young man broke down, to the point where family members had to hold him in his chair.
The moment sticks out as one Airman Yeomans will never forget during a four-month stint with the local High Frontier Honor Guard.
A client support administrator for the 50th Mission Support Group Knowledge Operations, Airman Yeomans relishes the time he spent with the honor guard, which ended Jan. 20. He believes every Airman could benefit from serving in the honor guard.
“First of all, you get the chance to experience camaraderie with your fellow team members,” he said. “You’re also connecting with Air Force history, working for the people who have come before you. Most of all, you’re helping the family members who have just lost their loved one. You’re giving them a last military honor.”
He appreciated his honor guard service so much that he even attempted to serve a second four-month tour with the team, which represents Schriever and Peterson Air Force Bases and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station.
“Maybe I can do it again in the future,” he said. “Right now, my office can’t afford for me to be gone another four months.”
His time spent away from normal duty actually spanned four months and a week.
The first week of honor guard service is set aside for training, something Airman Yeomans likens to basic training. His new team arrived at Peterson for training on Sept. 2. First order of business was to view the current honor guard as it performed a mock funeral. Since the new team would be replacing the current team, members were shown exactly what they needed to do.
Next came the rules and standards lessons. Uniforms had to be kept at the highest standards. The team was inspected every Monday. And every other day of the week they stood a 50-50 chance of enduring another inspection.
“The training program was a bit of a shock,” he said. “That first training week is known as “HUA” week. “Funerals are our main duty, so we train to be as good as possible in the shortest amount of time.”
The new honor guard has to perform a funeral in that week because it essentially replaces the prior team.
“To keep you disciplined and focused, there is a basic-training mentality,” he said. “You have to do pushups when you make mistakes; we couldn’t go in the break room; no TV watching. The whole process makes sure you can follow orders and have bearing and discipline.”
The main point of the first week is to learn to perform the funeral process. Once the new team could perform that, the previous team departed and the new team became the actual honor guard.
From there, the funerals are scheduled and the team leader is chosen by honor guard NCOs.
And the training doesn’t let up.
The new team learned and practiced color postings and retirement flag foldings. During Airman Yeomans’ four months, his team performed 50 funerals, mostly for retirees or Air Force veterans.
No funeral was ever the same. The team performed at churches, cemeteries and other installations from Grand Junction to Kansas. And each venue presented its own obstacles.
“We had to maneuver around headstones. Sometimes the casket would be backwards inside the hearse. Sometimes family members would be in the way,” Airman Yeomans said. “We had to invent obstacles for ourselves while we trained so that we could position ourselves for situations and still look ceremonious.”
Every branch of the military is required by U.S. Congress to maintain a main honor guard team. The Air Force is the only branch that also requires base honor guard teams.
For Airman Yeomans, the experience was unparalleled. He recalled another event where he presented a flag to a widow and stated, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Department of Defense and very grateful nation, for his honorable and dedicated service.” The woman then clutched his hand and thanked him for his service.
Airman Yeomans responded by saying, “It’s my honor,” then stepped back and saluted the flag.