By Pfc. Matthew RabahyMarch 18, 2019
In Evergreen Cemetery, families of two or three scattered among the sea of headstones stroll in a seemingly listless way, but the way everyone has his head down and eyes scanning hints to an earnest search. Eventually a party will drop anchor and moor to a single grave. All just gaze quietly at the name and date and wring dry whatever memories of their loved one flood their minds.
On particular days, Soldiers in dress-blue uniforms join the Families visiting the cemetery. This group of Soldiers is part of the 4th Infantry Division funeral honor guard team, and it's their duty to make sure servicemembers are laid to rest with the proper respect and finality.
The honor guard arrives at the cemetery long before the deceased's Family. They rehearse all the different elements of the service to perfection one final time.
Slip-ups will not go unnoticed.
Members of the honor guard must be virtually flawless from head to toe: crisp berets positioned directly over the left eye, and shiny, black dress shoes that land precisely where and when needed.
The honor guard is regularly reminded of the significance and sacrifice of military service.
Staff Sgt. Jose Velasquez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the pallbearers and rifle team, understands the critical role he and his Soldiers play in the lives of their fellow Soldiers and their Families.
It's important to remember the legacy the generations before us laid, Velasquez said. "We've done honors for people who in were in Vietnam, people that were in the first invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, people that - before we were even born, before we were even an idea - were sacrificing their blood, sweat and tears for our country so that we can be here."
It can be difficult to face mortality head-on so frequently and in such a personal way, but it's important that the honor guard retains their professionalism for the Families.
"It's not easy, because at some point everyone has lost someone," Velasquez said. "At a certain point, you just have to block that out, because it's not about us - it's about honoring the Soldiers and honoring their Families."
The honor guard isn't just reminded of the importance of their role from experiencing the services and reflecting upon its significance afterward; they are told personally by people who have felt firsthand just how powerful it is to have Soldiers by their side honoring their loved ones with them.
Velasquez said he remembers a time during rehearsal when a fellow Soldier approached him and what it meant for her when she had the honor guard present for her husband's funeral.
"She said, 'I want you guys to take this detail very seriously. This detail isn't just a detail; this is not just something you're just getting thrown into.' It hits a lot closer to home than we realize, because we don't know the service members or families, but when it's someone in your family or in your unit, it's gut-wrenching"
Velasquez said he stills feels the impression that this encounter left on him, and, more importantly, the impression it left on the Soldiers under him.
Spc. Gabriel Nunez, a flag-folder on the team, is one of those Soldiers who has come to understand the gravity of his role.
"To this day, I still get jitters from the 21-gun salute," Nunez said. "The final folding of the flag always touches my heart knowing that those were people that served before us."
As emotional as funeral services can be, Nunez said he knows he has to be strong for the Families.
"We are the face of the Army," he said. "We have to maintain our professionalism even though some of these ceremonies can be tear-jerkers. We have to maintain our composure. We have to be rock-solid for the Family."
Nunez said he is especially proud to be on the funeral honor guard, because he is the first person in his family to join the military. Being able to represent the military in such a literal and public manner is a great privilege for him.
"Some people see this as a detail, but I see this as an honor. There's a plethora of Soldiers on Fort Carson, but we were the chosen few that actually get the opportunity to render honors to fallen Soldiers."
Velasquez said he is used to working by himself in his counter-intelligence military occupation, but this privilege shifted his priorities when he was put in a leadership position over junior enlisted Soldiers.
"I went from having no Soldiers in my section to leading ten Soldiers," Velasquez said. "Having the opportunity to train and mentor these Soldiers is the best part. In the NCO Creed, it says 'all Soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership.' And that is something that sticks near and dear to me."
Though a good leader can impart a great deal of wisdom to those they lead and mentor, some lessons they just can't teach.
"One of the chaplains once said during a funeral service, 'If you look at the tombstone, you see a year of birth and year of death, but at what point did that person live their life?' And he said it's in the dash. The dash is between those two points, that's where that person left their legacy behind."
And it is up to the Soldiers of the funeral team to honor that legacy right up to the final volley of the gun salute and the presentation of a flag to a grief-stricken family member.