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High calling: Team Kirtland Honor Guard

Captain Chris Silvia salutes the passing flag while Master Sgt. David McKay of the Team Kirtland Honor Guard and his pallbearer team move the casket to the gravesite. After placing the casket at the gravesite, the team will fold the flag before Captain Silvia presents it to the widow. (Air Force photo)

Captain Chris Silvia salutes the passing flag while Master Sgt. David McKay of the Team Kirtland Honor Guard and his pallbearer team move the casket to the gravesite. After placing the casket at the gravesite, the team will fold the flag before Captain Silvia presents it to the widow. (Air Force photo)

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFMCNS) -- A bitter wind sweeps across the hillside at the National Cemetery. The sun shines brightly on the carefully tended uniforms of Team Kirtland Honor Guard. This day they would meet in Santa Fe to honor the life of retired Master Sgt. Raymond Sakamoto.

Heading Out

The day started very early at Kirtland. The ten men who make up the team met at the honor guard office. They wore ceremonial dress uniforms, jackets carefully in garment bags. In short order, the trailer was loaded and the trip was underway.

The first stop was the armory. Seven M-14s must be signed out for the traditional firing of three volleys customary for a military funeral. Regularly during the trip, a call is made by an appointed team member to the law enforcement desk. This ensures the safety of the weapons and those responsible for them.

A final stop for gas and snacks and Master Sgt. David McKay, noncommissioned officer in charge of the base honor guard, turned the van toward Santa Fe.

Sergeant McKay quickly doubled the size of the team after his arrival two and a half years ago. He's grateful for the opportunity, and has found the only disappointment to be when he loses Airmen, who are all volunteers, to transfers or deployment.

"This job helps me keep my finger on the pulse of the younger Air Force," he said.

Sergeant McKay is proud of his team and jokingly says that his official duty title is "honor guard dude." Including the command flight, there are six flights and 38 team members. They range in rank from airman first class to captain.

Each flight works one week on, one week on call and two weeks uninterrupted at their regular units. Any member may volunteer for extra duty. Sergeant McKay is concerned that the regular units of honor guard members "...understand that this is work, too." The practice, being at events and funerals, maintaining the uniforms, and then keeping up with work at their units isn't easy, he said.

One of those busy Airmen is Senior Airman Christopher Willingham, 58th Maintenance Squadron. He has been an honor guard member for three years, longer than anyone else. He'll get his staff sergeant stripe "sewn on" in January after five years in the Air Force.

Airman Willingham echoed the feeling of the other team members, "Honor guard stood out above everyone else," when he joined the Air Force. "Everything we do is precision. Being in the honor guard makes me feel like I'm in the military."

After Airman Willingham made another call to the law enforcement desk, Sergeant McKay asked, "What do we know about this gentleman?"

It was the first reminder that they were headed to a funeral. Capt. Chris Silvia, patient administration officer in the 377th Medical Group, explained that the honor guard is given a brief report so they know the individual they are honoring. It may also help them anticipate the needs of the family.

In this case, there is less information than usual because Sergeant Sakamoto was a member of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. The team learned that he was 76 years old and had served for 26 years. After a few minutes spent figuring out the dates of enlistment and retirement, the conversation turned to spiritual matters.

Most members of this team are in their early twenties, but they've given serious thought to the intent behind the funeral honors. Maybe having three team members already deployed and three more about to go has caused them to think a little more about life and death. Perhaps someone attracted to honor guard duty is thoughtful by nature.

They all said that while honor is due to those who served, the solace is for the living. Captain Silvia recalled an 80 year old widow who held his hands when he gave her the flag and told him about her husband's life. Everyone on the team could recall being thanked and hugged.

When the van began the climb to the National Cemetery on the outskirts of Santa Fe, weather became the concern. Was the service on top of the hill? How bad was the wind? Did everyone have long underwear? Extra gloves? High spirits didn't seem out of place. These were now performers getting ready to do their job and the adrenaline was flowing.

Soon it was clear that adrenaline would be the only thing keeping them warm. Double gloves and jacket liners were no match for the wind chill. Just the same, the key moves of the ceremony were practiced at the site to make sure there would be no surprises.

Then everyone was back in the van to warm up. This wasn't just about comfort. If their hands got too cold, they'd be stiff on the trigger and the three volleys might not be perfectly in unison. For these Airmen, perfect is the only option.

Team Kirtland Honor Guard in Action

As they marched down the hill to the gravesite, heels clicking in unison, backs straight and eyes ahead, they were a picture of strength and calm.

Six men waited in formation as the hearse pulled up. Captain Silvia met the hearse. Bugler Airman First Class Erik Munana stood at attention, ready to play Taps. 2nd Lts. Brent Mundie and Curtis Schwartz stood guard over the rifles that were already in position.

As the family arrived, they saw the Airmen standing at attention in honor of the husband, father and friend they had loved.

There was silence against the blue sky as the pallbearers moved the casket onto the bier. The flag was folded in the time-honored choreography, each move steady. The mourners watched the Airmen march from around the casket to the firing position. The sound of the three crisp, perfect volleys was shocking in the deep quiet.

The lonely melody of taps hung in the air for a moment before Airman Munana lowered the gleaming bugle.

When Captain Silvia knelt before the widow to present the flag sobs were heard, as it has happened before and will again.

The mourners hesitated before leaving the hillside, as if taking one breath in the stillness before returning to daily life.

In a final ritual, Captain Silvia collected the brass cartridges and gave three to Mrs. Sakamoto. Members of the family thanked him and other members of the team as everyone dispersed. Airman Willingham got a hug.

The Road Home

The dress jackets were hung up, the rifles secured and everyone was back in the van. With the heater blasting, debriefing began.

Did the volleys sound perfect? The consensus was yes. The flag folding had gone without a hitch, but there was some discussion of the variations in size and fabric that can cause trouble. Why did the crowd turn away from the firing party? The officiator asked them to face the flag.

No aspect of the performance went without discussion. It sets the agenda for future practice.

It is agreed that this funeral went particularly well, but the team has to be prepared for the unexpected. Airman First Class Kenderic Callens of the 898th Munitions Squadron contributed a story about a shirt button flying off and skittering across a casket. Another time, a casket was so heavy that the handles began to break as the pallbearers carried it.

Bugs figured heavily in these stories. Try to remain impassive as a spider works his way over your face, they said, and you know the meaning of self control.

One last serious topic was discussed as the van neared Albuquerque. What has touched each of them most in their service with the honor guard?

While the honor guard performs at sporting events, retirement and other ceremonies, they all recognize the funeral honors as their primary purpose.

Everyone agreed that funerals of servicemembers on active duty are the most emotional. As Airman Willingham said, by the time the eulogies are over and family members have spoken to members of the team, "You really know them."

Lieutenant Mundie, a physicist with Air Force Operational Testing and Evaluation Center who had a copy of "Dawntreader" by C.S. Lewis sitting in his hat, remembers a funeral at which he gave the flag to 7-year-old girl, the only family of the deceased.

It's moments like that which reaffirm the high calling of Team Kirtland Honor Guard.