JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, VA. --
Four Joint Base Langley-Eustis ceremonial guardsmen recently sat down to reflect on the experience of performing military funeral honors for eight of the nine Puerto Rico National Guardsmen killed in a recent aircraft mishap.
“These families, the whole island, was still recovering from the hurricane, and to see what they’ve gone through, what they’re still dealing with …” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman John Stone Jr., 438th Supply Chain Operations Squadron supply management specialist. “It makes you speechless -- and that doesn’t happen to me often. Sitting here, it’s sometimes difficult to come up with the words.”
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Christopher Clement, 633rd Communications Squadron communications specialist; Senior Airman Blake Hendricks, 1st Operations Support Squadron supply management specialist; and Senior Airman Gabriel Fox, 439th Supply Chain Operations Squadron supply management specialist, were handpicked along with Stone for this duty.
Fox is no longer an official part of the JBLE Honor Guard, having already served two years in the program, but returned in his capacity as a bugler for these services.
The JBLE team augmented other Airmen from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey; and the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard to perform the funeral services for the fallen Airmen.
Hendricks estimated the team prepared for 40 hours with other ceremonial guardsman to ensure their movements were precise and in sync prior to the funeral services.
The team first drove from Virginia to Dover AFB, where they practiced for eight hours, before taking an early morning flight to Puerto Rico. Upon arrival, each JBLE member watched the dignified return alongside the families on the flight line.
“It’s a very emotional experience because that’s the families’ first time seeing the flag-draped caskets of their loved ones,” Clement said.
Fox agreed, recalling the spouse of one of the fallen, also a member of the Puerto Rico National Guard, rendering honors to her deceased loved one.
“Sometimes here you can forget how important things are, but [in Puerto Rico] they have experienced how important their entire lives are,” Fox said.
The JBLE Airmen were touched by the reception they received from the 156th Airlift Wing leadership and the Puerto Rican people throughout their trip.
“It’s one thing for an individual family to be thankful for us as ceremonial guardsman coming out and performing military honors, but it’s another thing for not only an entire family, but an entire base, an entire island to be grateful,” Clement said. “I met individuals who were not in the Air National Guard, but they knew someone who was in the Air National Guard, or they went to school with them, and as soon it came up in conversation, they were all extremely grateful.”
The JBLE Airmen channeled their personal emotion into their work, leaning on each other during downtimes, but staying focused throughout the week.
“I believe that when we do an outstanding job, everyone’s on point, the movements are perfect – that makes [us] feel good. We know we did our part to help the family,” Hendricks said. “By us practicing, getting in sync with each other, that was how we dealt with the [emotion] of the situation.”
Each expressed gratitude for the opportunity to represent JBLE and the Air Force at the funeral services. Clement noted that his time in honor guard has clarified what military service is and what sacrifice means, and that it will be something that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
“I enlisted into the military, into the United States Air Force, to represent something bigger than myself. Honor Guard, in my opinion, is the best way for me to do something bigger than myself,” Clement said. “I wish that every Airman, every military member, were afforded the opportunity to perform these honors.”