Hill AFB Honor Guard takes duties seriously

Mar 18 2010 - 12:52pm

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TSgt Thomas Smith holds a neatly folded flag as the Hill AFB Honor Guard practices for a funeral detail. (Nicholas Draney)
The Hill AFB Honor Guard practices for a funeral detail by carrying an empty casket. (Nicholas Draney/Standard-Examiner)
TSgt Thomas Smith holds a neatly folded flag as the Hill AFB Honor Guard practices for a funeral detail. (Nicholas Draney)
The Hill AFB Honor Guard practices for a funeral detail by carrying an empty casket. (Nicholas Draney/Standard-Examiner)

The Honor Guard at Hill Air Force Base is the epitome of military precision. From the position of the thumbs to the speed of the marches and salutes, each move is perfectly timed and choreographed. On the uniforms, stripes and ribbons are the only individual variations. Tech. Sgt. Thomas Smith says the absence of nametags contributes to the group's cohesion as representatives of the U.S. military.

Smith heads up the Honor Guard at Hill Air Force Base. Of the 30-person staff, he's the only full-time member. His ranks, organized into three "flights," are all volunteers.

"Honor Guard volunteers contract with us for one year. They agree to give us two weeks out of every six for that year," Smith explained.

The Hill group covers 160,000 square miles, including most of Utah and some parts of Wyoming and Nevada. The Honor Guard doesn't perform only at military funerals; it conducts ceremonies for changes of command, promotions, retirements and such special events as the annual air show.

Smith's job is to be certain each man and woman in his Honor Guard is "spun up" or properly trained to perform any assignment, or "detail," that arises.

Smith joined the Air Force in 1992. After basic training, he worked in a warehouse, stocking shelves and loading trucks. He married his wife, Kristen, soon after and the two relocated to Eielson AFB, just outside Fairbanks, Alaska.

The couple recently moved onto Hill AFB with their five children: Kailey, 14, Cole, 8, Jaxon, 7, Brielle, 3, and Audreena, 2. Smith enjoys being close to work, as he spends so much time there.

"I was in the supply and logistics field for a long time and I needed a change ... I was really excited when I got the job," Smith said.

"I work hard to set a good example. Image is very important. The only vision we want people to have is of the Air Force as a whole, so our movements are precise and timed to conduct ourselves in a ceremonial fashion. For funerals, we put on a show to honor the deceased and family as representatives of the president and the United States of America," he said.

Smith's typical day begins with checking his wall chart for details -- assignments his group has for the week. Three days out of every week are spent in physical training with push-ups, situps and weights, as well as group activities such as playing basketball, hiking or other team-building exercises.

Smith also holds dress inspections weekly. Uniforms must be pressed and polished, from a clean crimpfree hat down to perfectly shined shoes. Troops must look their best to perform each detail. The two dedicated vans must be kept in working order, as well as the guns and ammunition for the gun salutes.

Funerals are the most common detail, with 180 in 2009 alone. The Honor Guard performs for funerals of veterans, as well as funerals for active duty personnel.

When a detail involves escorting a casket to a grave-site, the Honor Guard arrives an hour early to study the area and prepare for the task at hand. Whether it's freezing cold or blazing hot, the Honor Guard stands at a tight at-ease position until the hearse arrives. Taps is played either live by a bugler or by a microphone device inside the bugle.

Step by perfectly timed step, the Honor Guard members carry the casket, with thumbs facing the foot of the coffin, the flag draped with the stars at the head and stripes at the feet, to the gravesite. The foot of the coffin always leads the direction of travel. With exact precision, the group folds the flag into a perfect triangle. The highest-ranking officer presents the flag and the rounds from the gun salute to the next of kin, most often the spouse.

"I'm usually a pretty emotional guy, but I keep myself together when I present the flag with gratitude for their sacrifice on behalf of the president of the United States of America. The statement's the same each time, but it's also very heartfelt. I look the person in the eyes when I present them the flag," he said.

One of Smith's challenges is maintaining a full staff. Each of his three flight rotations has 8 to 10 individuals. Factor in people leaving for various reasons, including deployment, and recruiting new members is high on his list of priorities. He's frustrated when someone wants to do Honor Guard but can't be released from other duties to do so.

Smith credits his troops' dedication for the success of his program.

"I have a great group of people to work with; I'm just the facilitator. This amazing, rewarding job puts us in front of the public, performing at our best. We bring dignity and honor to our ceremonies. We're not individuals out there. We're the Honor Guard, representing the United States Air Force and we take that responsibility very seriously."

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