SAN DIEGO – The Soldiers gather in a circle around the dark-haired trainer, rolling up their sleeves as they present their upper arms to her for inspection.
She eyes each bruise, gently tapping above the discolored skin of one Soldier.
“See, that’s how you know you’re not holding the rifle correctly or the casket correctly. Your bruises will be in the wrong place,” U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Zaira Robinson says with a chuckle as the Soldiers begin chiming in with their own stories on sore biceps while demonstrating their rifle grips.
While bruises are often a rite of passage in Army-centric training, the Soldiers’ bruises don’t come from crawls through the woods or an obstacle course. Instead, they blossomed from precise movements and countless hours of drill and ceremony.
The California National Guard’s Military Funeral Honors program welcomed seven new members into their fold following weeklong training in San Diego Dec. 13-18.
The California State Honor Guard Team performs military funerals throughout California, home to about 1.8 million veterans – the largest veteran population in the nation.
“We have to have people that are detail-oriented, that care, that are going to be professionals and that truly want to serve those that served before them and honor them,” Robinson said.
Robinson, the state’s only certified trainer, spent the week teaching and drilling the Soldiers on military funeral protocol and practices, including the six-person flag fold, two-Soldier casket and urn, three-Soldier casket and urn and all positions on a nine-Soldier modified full military funeral honors.
“We have to work as a team. We have to all together be in unison and in sync,” said Robinson.
Movement, coordination and timing are expected to be perfect, with the six-person flag fold especially difficult for the trainees.
“There’s a lot that goes into it. There’s a lot of specific movements that are timed and it just takes a lot of coordination between all six people,” said Spc. William P. Dunphy, an infantryman with the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and a new Honor Guard team member.
Soldiers said the job’s mission and meaning made their training worthwhile.
“Being able to give back to the families of deceased veterans is a huge honor and privilege,” said Dunphy.
While proficiency in the physical tasks and demands of a military funeral is required to become certified, having the resiliency to handle the emotionally draining aspects of military funerals is also an important and often overlooked requirement, said Robinson.
“It does get very emotional, and it’s our job to maintain our professionalism, maintain our composure, more than anything else,” Robinson said.
Soldiers like Robinson believe the service they provide their fellow veterans is one of the most satisfying jobs in the Cal Guard.
“We’re not just showing up to a funeral representing ourselves. … we’re representing the Guard. We’re representing the Army as a whole for that family. We want to give those families the absolute best,” said Robinson.