VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. –
More than a dozen Army National Guard Soldiers from Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina completed a five-day Level 1 Funeral Honors Training hosted by the Virginia National Guard Funeral Honors Program Dec. 11-15, 2017, at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
The 40-hour certification course, which included eight Soldiers from Virginia, three from Maryland and two from North Carolina, prepares National Guard Soldiers to conduct professional military funeral honors in accordance with military service tradition and covers everything from the correct wear of the uniform, to the drill and ceremony aspects of the service, to instilling the mental toughness needed to perform the ceremonies.
“We really have to squeeze 10 days of training into four days,” Staff Sgt. Jason Cain, senior instructor for the program, explained. The days are long, starting with at least an hour of physical training each day and ending with uniform preparations each night.
“It’s a good combination of mental and physical,” Cain said. “Physical training s 60-90 minutes daily and then they’re working 11-12 hour days on top of that. So they’re pulling 16-17 hour days while they are here.”
“But it’s very rewarding for them in the end. You’re tired but as soon as you get that certificate it’s all worth it in the end.”
Participants are required to have 20 missions under their belt before they attend the course so most of them come in with an established level of knowledge of the proper procedures. As a result, they don’t spend a lot of time in the classroom.
“As soon as introductions are over, we go and show them before we start the instruction,” Cain said. “Most of the Soldiers come in with an idea of what it entails because they’ve already been trained by their states but we take that training to the next level. Once we show it to them, we start letting them do it. We start very slow and once we see them progress we start picking up the pace.”
“There is a lot of information and sometimes you get brain fog but you just gotta trust your training and keep going,” said Spc. Caleb Ledford of the North Carolina Army National Guard. “These are long days but you have to push through. It’s definitely an honor to do it.”
The training is important because, as retired command sergeant major Timothy White, the Virginia Military Funeral Honors contractor, explained, “We don’t get a second chance. We must be perfect in what we do.”
One thing that can’t be practiced is the emotional aspect of actually performing a funeral detail.
“There’s no real way to prepare a Soldier for what they’re going to see when they get in front of a family,” Cain said. “We can train them all day but the reality of it doesn’t hit them until they’re out there. We’ve had Soldiers come back to us after services and tell us this isn’t for them. There’s no shame in that. It definitely takes a special type of Soldier because of the physical, mental and emotional demands.”
The course, which was instructed by three Virginia Soldiers and two members of the Maryland Guard Funeral Honors Program, was the second Level 1 course Virginia has conducted with other states. Plans are now set for Virginia to host four Level 1 courses per year, one per quarter, at Camp Pendleton.
In addition, they hosted a Level 2 course in November with participants from more than a dozen states. In January Virginia will host a Level 3 course for the first time and participants will include Soldiers from 10 different states.
“We’ve also done cross training with North Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee and Kentucky in some form or fashion,” said Cain, who received his Level 3 certification in South Dakota. “The best thing about having other instructors here from other states is that we exchange ideas and work together to have the entire nation on the same page. A Soldier from Virginia should be able to travel to Maryland and perform a funeral detail and there is no question about the standards.”
No matter which state they are from, Soldiers know that they have a duty to perform, one that requires professionalism and respect.
“It’s important to instill professionalism in the Soldiers, no matter what their age or rank,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Beard of the Maryland National Guard Funeral Honors program, one of the instructors at the Level 1 course. “They need to keep that professional aspect. I look to make sure the Soldiers maintain their composure no matter how long they have to be there.”
Beard, the Northern Area supervisor for the Maryland program, has been performing funeral honors since 2013 and finds it very rewarding to honor a fallen veteran, whether there’s a large family gathered for the ceremony or no one at all.
“We do it the same way,” he said. “It’s not about the family. It’s not about myself. It’s about the veteran getting the same service, to the best of our abilities.”