First Honor Guard Competition Pushes Teams to Perfection
April 5, 2007
RENO, Nev. (Army News Service, April 5, 2007) - Staff Sgt. Jeromy Turner knows all about the finality of funerals, about the idea that you have only one chance to make a good first impression.
"We only have one chance per veteran. We may do 12 services in one day, and every service has to be perfect," said the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Oregon Army National Guard's honor guard team.
"When we're not honoring veterans, we're training," Turner added. "We're doing our after-action reviews and rehearsals so that we can go out and honor these veterans the best we can."
That was the special bond among the members of eight state teams that participated in the National Guard Bureau's first competition for Army Guard honor guard teams on March 20-22.
Teams of seven Soldiers from Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Utah converged on the Stead Training Facility, an Army Guard site on the outskirts of Reno, to see how close to perfection they could come.
The Oregon team took first place. Utah took second, and Tennessee took third.
The competition was the result of the Guard Bureau's efforts to standardize the way that state teams render final honors to the people being buried and their families.
"These are probably the best teams from across the nation," said Ari Morales, the operations coordinator for Nevada's honor guard program. "They are competing in order to identify what team is upholding our standards the most and representing the National Guard Bureau in the way that they should be," added Morales who also helped coordinate the competition.
Members of the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) from Fort Myer, Va., which participates in thousands of funerals every year and guards the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, were the evaluators.
Each day began with an exhaustive in-ranks inspection during which Old Guard NCOs "hard-eyed" each Soldier from head to toe. They used rulers to check the uniforms; they wrote down the "gigs," or discrepancies.
Then the best of the Army Guard's best had themselves rated on all aspects of performing a funeral for a fallen veteran - from lifting caskets and urns out of hearses to firing the customary salute with M-14 rifles and presenting the folded flag to a deceased's family member.
The participants ran a grueling, timed obstacle course which had to be done twice - once for time and then repeated in full dress blues while performing honors; both times while carrying a casket weighted down by 200 pounds of sandbags. They also took a 60-question written exam on the history of memorial affairs.
Sgt. Joshua Keil from the Missouri team explained that the intense competition means more than points on a score sheet: "When I present the flag to the next of kin, and they look into my eyes with sincerity, they're looking for comfort, and I see them get just that little bit of comfort. It makes all the difference in the world."
Sgt. Delarion Perry shared that sentiment: "They come up and shake your hand after the service. That lets me know I've done my job to the fullest, the best I could do."
Oregon's Turner praised the competition and also summed up what it meant to win and to a veteran of the Iraq War: "Pretty much all of us are combat veterans and we all lost friends over there. Every day we do services we'll be marching past our friends' headstones. ... Going out there and being pallbearers together, it's something you can't describe."
(Staff Sgt. W. Michael Houk writes for the National Guard Bureau.)