Oregon Air Guardsmen take on funeral honors responsibilities

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. John Hughel
  • 142nd Fighter Wing
A trio of Oregon National Guardsmen stand motionless at attention holding M-14 rifles. Then seamlessly upon command, they fire three crisp volleys in succession, breaking the morning silence as the gunfire’s refrain resonates over the Mt. Scott hillsides and valley here at Willamette National Cemetery.

The custom of firing three volleys is one of the oldest military traditions. It indicates the cease in hostilities between two warring sides to properly clear their dead from the battlefield. In a military funeral, it signifies that the member’s weapons are no longer used for battle, but rather to honor their sacrifice and service.

The Firing Party is just one element of the ceremony bestowing full military funeral honors. The ceremony also includes the respectful transfer of remains, the playing of Taps, and it culminates in the folding and presentation of the American Flag to the Veteran’s family.

For many years the Oregon Army National Guard and the U.S. Navy Reserves from Swan Island Reserve Center, Portland, have designated specially trained ceremonial honor guard members to perform multiple funerals each day at Willamette National Cemetery. For Airmen funerals, the U.S. Air Force active duty honor guard from Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), Washington sent members on Temporary Duty Orders (TDY) to conduct specified services. Yet, beginning in October 2016, Tech. Sgt. Justin Meininger and I began full-time duties at Willamette National Cemetery, representing the U.S. Air Force as members of the Oregon Air National Guard.

“Our honor guard team has been increasing in members and color guard events exponentially almost each year since I joined seven years ago,” said Meininger, Portland Air National Guard (PANG) Base Honor Guard noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC). “In the past year we did nearly 80 events from [Portland] Trailblazer games, to Timbers and Thorns’ soccer matches, as well as elementary school presentations, parades, and veteran association events.”

For several years, the PANG Team of nearly two-dozen specially trained airmen had requested to augment the JBLM members for local funerals. Finally, with a working plan drafted and later implemented by Meininger and Master Sgt. Amy Schmidt, 142nd Fighter Wing Force Support Squadron superintendent, this program was executed with two full time ceremonial airmen on duty.

“When calculating lodging, per diem, and other logistical factors, we estimated a savings of over $114,000.00 a year,” Meininger noted. “This was a plan put into motion in early 2015, but it was not until this fiscal year (2017) that we were able to begin keeping two full-time servicemembers in place here at Willamette National Cemetery.”

A memo of agreement needed to be drafted between all parties, and then everything went to the National Guard Bureau for approval before given the green light in October. The financial benefit is just one element of having Air Guardsmen perform the funeral services locally. Beyond the money aspect, the dividends are far ranging. In fact, the impression of ceremonial honor guard members on the residential community has been instantaneous.

An overwhelming percentage of those attending a military funeral are civilians with little association with the military. As military ambassadors, the honor guard’s role represents the pride of the Air Force locally, yet its role also reflects the overall professionalism of the armed forces with a joint force service team during funeral honors ceremonies.

A significant first step was airmen integrating into the mix of soldiers and sailors as there is a recognizable esprit de’ corps fostered in the joint team at WNC, something sacrosanct, embodying every aspect of honoring veterans with dignity. For many years, the Army and Navy have been providing support to Air Force services with casket and firing party details. It was crucial for us as PANG members to integrate into the mix with the right tone and temperament.

Having been part of the funeral honor program for the Navy over the past dozen years, Electrical Technician Chief Petty Officer James Cameron recalled how the administration at Willamette National Cemetery had been trying for several years to get PANG airmen involved.

“There were various bureaucratic hurdles and it never worked out, but from day one when you guys arrived, everyone could see you two wanted be involved in every part of the funeral honors and set a positive tone right away,” Cameron said.

A standard funeral has anywhere from seven to ten honor guardsmen participating in a service. On the busiest of days, 11-14 funerals are scheduled. With funerals set on the half hour, adding two new permanent individuals made an immediate impact.

Willamette National Cemetery opened in 1950. The 307-acre cemetery in the bluffs of Mt. Scott, is one of the most active national cemeteries in the United States as well as one of the most picturesque. It overlooks the City of Portland, and the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. Most notably are the Cascade mountain range marvels of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens. In July 2016, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Unlike Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. and many other national cemeteries with vertical standing stone markers, the low profile granite markers by design at WNC emphasize and support the natural rolling landscape of the site.

In January 2000, the Department of Defense (DoD) established Public Law 106-65, which allows, upon family request, every eligible Veteran to receive a military funeral honor ceremony. The law defines that a detail should “consists of two or more uniformed military persons, with at least one being a member of the Veteran's parent service.”

Each branch of the military has unique aspects to their funeral services. For the Air Force, a traditional flag presentation sequence is a two-man folding team. The Army and Navy encompass three members for folding and presenting. For those memorials, which include service members killed in action or on active duty, a 6-man flag folding presentation deepens the ceremonial ritual. Subtleties abound in other areas with Firing Party and Casket transfer teams. To streamline and build in uniformity, Army service rituals are incorporated and form a succinct presentation.

“This can be a very stressful environment,” Cameron said. “When not directly participating in a funeral service, the rehearsal and training between services is a critical component to building a complete team.”

One of most remarkable distinctions about the assignments is the autonomy. The innate reliability of team members is extraordinary and include being in place for services, having their uniform spotless and being trained and prepared on a daily basis.

As the senior NCO for the Oregon Army National Guard team, Staff Sgt. Greg Lindstrom sets a proficient yet calm atmosphere that allows junior members to contribute to the mission’s success. “There really is not any friction here [among members], and I’ll refer to those with different expertise or training like Specialist (Everett) Mayers and Corporal (Tom) Hoy to add their input to the team success.”

Both Mayers and Hoy have attended several honor guard courses and have been part of the Army’s WNC team for several years. Their ‘leading by example’ approach facilitates an up-tempo, high-standard atmosphere within all team members.

“I like coming to work every day and the people we have in place,” Lindstrom added. “I love the overall atmosphere here, but more importantly, the job has real meaning.”

This environment sets the stage for becoming part of the total joint team. The ability to jump in was also a creative opportunity to develop undefined responsibilities. From building Airmanship skills of leadership, self-responsibility, attention to detail or working in a joint environment, the range of opportunities to grow is limitless.

“We found right away that, to be part of ‘the team,’ it just made sense to use what was already working,” Meininger said.

Now nearly half way through this initial six-month assignment, Meininger remarked on how the WNC responsibilities have been a long sought after professional goal.

“Everyone who joins the honor guard does so with the desire to get to this place at some point in their career: to perform military funeral honors” he said. “This is what it’s all about: The extra and off duty hours of training, the detailing of the uniform and building comradery along the way.”

“My father is buried here so in so many ways, this is a special assignment,” Cameron noted. “It is an honor on many levels to be part of this place.”

The spirit of cooperation within the larger group is contagious. Everyone wants to contribute and be part of all the services no matter the branch of service, which shelter site of the property, or weather elements of the day. “There is a sense of pride in the actual job, but on another, level there is a deeper sense of belonging to a team,” Meininger said. “You cannot help but broaden and appreciate every detail of life when working so close to a group that wants to give their best effort for every funeral service.”

There is repetition and ritual to many aspects of military life. When performing funeral honors, each detail is rehearsed over and over and then performed to the highest level during each service. Focusing on the veteran and his or her family is the vital attribute.

Touching on the significance of the role honor guardsmen strive to attain, Lindstrom summarized the nature of the mission. “We don’t try to become emotionally attached to the family, but rather, we try and be that pillar of strength for them. Hopefully, what we give back helps support the family and reflects in some way the years of military sacrifice their loved one provided to this nation.”

This sense of support and pride each member brings to the funeral honors detail is distinct to the responsibility. The passion, precision, and expertise I have found with this assignment are like none other in my military career. Echoing a portion of The Airman’s Creed, of being “faithful to a proud heritage, a tradition of honor, and a legacy of valor,” it’s a measure of devotion I also hope to carry with me in subsequent stations in life.