VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. –
The Virginia National Guard Military Funeral Honors Program conducted Level 1 Funeral Honors training April 26-30 2016, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Eight Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers from throughout the state participated in the 40-hour certification course which prepares Soldiers to conduct professional military funeral honors in accordance with service tradition.
“We are the final honor for our veterans,” said Sgt. Sam Conolly, area coordinator for the Tidewater region and one of the trainers for the course. “It’s a great duty, probably the most honorable thing I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t think anything can trump it.”
Begun in January 2007, the Virginia National Guard Military Funeral Honors Program is composed of five teams located throughout the state which provide funeral details, not just to National Guard Soldiers but to veterans of all branches of the military.
“I’ve been in the military 13 years, including five years of active duty,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Cain, senior instructor for the program. “In my career I’ve never seen a more dedicated group of Soldiers.”
Since 2007 they have performed nearly 18,000 funeral services throughout the commonwealth. They average almost 190 services each month, meaning Soldiers often perform multiple ceremonies a day.
“This is one of the most professional organizations I’ve been with,” said Tim White, military funeral honors coordinator and a command sergeant major with the Virginia Army National Guard. “Our motto is ‘Honoring those who served.’ Our guys truly live by that. I’m impressed by everything they do.”
Virginia National Guard Military Funeral Honors teams are based in Bowling Green, Gate City, Petersburg, Salem and Suffolk. There are currently 14 fulltime members of the program and approximately 80 part-time, M-Day Soldiers.
Funerals take place seven days a week and Soldiers need to be prepared to perform duty when needed. This means occasionally cancelling family plans or other events to ensure they are there to honor a veteran.
“This is literally a 24/7 job and we love it,” Cain said. “Everyone in this program is extremely proud of it.”
Before they can even be considered for the Funeral Honors Program, Soldiers must first have a letter of recommendation from their unit. They must then meet the height and weight requirements and Army Physical Fitness Test requirements.
“It takes a very high standard to even be in this program,” he explained. “We only want the best of the best. We represent not just the Virginia Guard but the National Guard as a whole.”
Then they have to complete the week-long training, learning the finer points of funeral honors both in a classroom and in hands-on training. The course 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 such a ceremony.
“It’s the last memory a family has of their loved one before they lay them to rest,” said Pfc. Nathan Williams, a cavalry scout with Norfolk-based Troop A, 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. “It’s only right we train hard enough to make it look perfect.”
That means learning to deal with both physical and mental discomfort.
“You’re taught mental toughness at the beginning and you just have to push through,” said Spc. Jacob Combs, a chemical specialist assigned to the Rocky Mount-based 229th Chemical Company, 276th Engineer Battalion, 91st Troop Command. “You have to give 100% each time. You have to give the exact same throughout the whole entire process.
“No matter how many services you perform a day, he or she gets the perfect funeral no matter what,” he explained. “They deserve it.”
Soldiers are taught that no one service is more important than another. Each veteran deserves the same respect and honor.
“A service for a homeless veteran at a veterans’ cemetery is just as important as one that has 200 people,” Cain said. “We treat every service with the professionalism and dedication that we would any other.”
“It’s about honoring him or her,” explained Pfc. Jessica Kaewnork, a power generator repairer with the Petersburg-based 276th Engineer Battalion. “By being precise and on top of things, we’re giving them the honor they deserve.”
When it’s time for a ceremony, the Soldiers make sure their uniforms are squared away. Then they arrive early and leave late. They perform their mission and stay out of the way, preferring to honor the veteran by keeping the focus on him or her, not them.
“We try to stay behind everything,” Conolly said. “You show up before the family arrives and leave after they leave. What we do is such a sensitive thing. It is so detail oriented. There are so many small things that add up and if everyone does them the same, that’s what makes it a great service.”
To get to the point where they can perform that service flawlessly, team members continuously train. Even after they graduate the course, Soldiers must continue to practice and perfect their movements, according to White.
“In this environment, you have to be perfect,” he said.
“It’s either right or it’s wrong,” said Combs. “No matter how right you make think it is, if it’s in any way wrong, then it is wrong. So you do it again until you get it crisp and correct.”
But all the physical training still doesn’t prepare them for the mental and emotional impact of performing a ceremony.
“The Soldiers in the training don’t really understand how important it is until we get them out there for a ceremony,” Cain explained. “We can tell them all day but until they get out there and see the effect they are having on the families, on the spouses, on the children, that’s when they can see what they are doing is very important.”
“This is the worst day of that family’s life,” Conolly explained. “They just lost a loved one and we want to do our thing, honor the veteran and leave. There are only two things you can do in the service- honor or dishonor. We pick one, to honor.”
The next Level 1 training course is scheduled for July in Virginia Beach. For more information about the Virginia National Guard Military Funeral Honors Program, please call 804-722-8902.