Often their duty is done in the dead of night on the tarmac of Dover Air Force Base, far from public view or official scrutiny.
No matter. The Dover base honor guard pursues its mission – the dignified transfer of human remains – with precision and painstaking care.
The mission of Dover's 45-member honor guard is unique because the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover is designated to receive the remains of every U.S. soldier killed in the war with Iraq – more than 100 so far. Theirs is the first honor extended on U.S. soil.
“Each time I board the aircraft, I get a sense of pride and I get chill bumps,” said Technical Sergeant Maurice D. Mack, 34, of Magnolia, Delaware, who leads the all-volunteer honor guard and participates in each arrival. “I don't know them personally, but during the prayer I usually thank them silently for what they were doing over there.”
Mack has high-level experience – he was a member of the presidential Air Force honor guard from 1988-1990, a unit that performs military honor funerals, ceremonies at the White House, and other events requiring top-secret clearance.
When Army soldiers' remains are among those arriving, members of the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) join Dover's honor guard, Mack said. The Old Guard also guards the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery and is the official escort of the president of the United States.
With that joint duty, Dover's honor guard joins the nation's oldest active-duty infantry unit, which traces its history to 1784 and is recognized as the nation's first military honor guard, said Sgt. William Patterson, spokesman for The Old Guard. The honor guard's mission then, as now, was to pay a final tribute to those killed in military service.
“We hope to engender in other people the same respect we have for these soldiers,” Patterson said.
They rehearse their duties as they wait for the aircraft to arrive, Mack said. When it does, Mack and a high-ranking base officer, a mortuary officer and a member of the Old Guard board the plane to brief the crew and those who are escorting the remains home.
They make sure every transfer case is draped with an American flag.
When the cases are properly prepared, the honor guard members take their places on the aircraft and a chaplain prays over the remains.
The officers, chaplain and others then exit the aircraft and stand aside as the honor guard members carry the remains to hearses for the drive to the mortuary, where they are identified and prepared for return to their next of kin.
Honor guard members are trained in proper decorum and etiquette, they use precise hand and foot motions and they train regularly – sometimes just by standing motionless at attention for 10 to 15 minutes at a stretch.
Airman First Class Rickie Jones, 20, of Baltimore, was in military-style groups like Civil Air Patrol and Junior ROTC as a teenager. He sees the honor guard duty as a logical progression. But it is more stringent than anything he has done before, he said.
“Every little thing matters,” he said. “You want a flawless job – the best you can do. It doesn't matter if there's nobody else there or 50,000 people there.”
For Senior Airman Morgan Briden, 22, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the duty is the closest she will get to the war.
“It's not fun. It's sad,” she said. “But in light of that sadness, I feel honored to go out and be one of the few that gives them their proper respect.”
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard