21 Airmen and their mission ... THE mission

  • Published
  • By Col. Scott J. Zobrist
  • 388th Fighter Wing, commander
On Feb. 1, I attended the funeral of a friend and fellow Airman who was killed in a tragic car accident in Italy, leaving behind a wife and two sons.

Family and friends, many Airmen among them, gathered in a small town in New York to pay their respects. A U.S. Air Force Honor Guard was there and the role they played that day forever changed my view of the honor guard.

You see, I've always appreciated the honor guard, but on that day, the honor guard transcended from simply being an important part of our Air Force to being an absolutely essential mission about taking care of Airmen ... THE mission ... in which we cannot fail.

Twenty-one Airmen from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., drove several hours to this small town north of New York City to render honors to this fallen warrior and fellow Airman. They all have "other jobs" in the Air Force -- maintainers, security forces, personnelists --but they were in New York that day to perform the Air Force's No. 1 mission, THE mission: taking care of Airmen. We take care of our Airmen in many ways, but none is more important than giving them proper honors when they die during service to their country. And for that reason, these 21 Airmen were in New York for my friend's funeral.

Five Airmen solemnly brought the colors into the church and stood at attention while six pallbearers ushered in my friend's casket, quietly unfurled the U.S. flag over it, and stood motionless, holding the flag taut over the casket for well over an hour during the entire funeral Mass. To their right, a second lieutenant and a senior master sergeant stood guard over the fallen Airman, the colors and the pallbearers. Outside in the frigid February air, seven Airmen waited patiently to execute a 21-gun salute, and a single Airman waited to play "Taps."

The honor guard's display of professionalism and respect was incredibly powerful, not just to the 100 or so civilian attendees, but also to the Airmen in attendance. I was never so proud to be an Airman as on that day.

Twenty-one Airmen. A mission. THE mission. On Feb. 1, the McGuire AFB Honor Guard flawlessly executed the Air Force's No. 1 mission -- taking care of our Airmen.

I'm sure those Airmen were missed at their "other job" that day, but that "other job" still got done somehow. Their commanders and supervisors obviously supported those 21 Airmen's participation in this funeral, and for that, my friend's family will be forever grateful ... as will I, because their service brought great credit to the United States Air Force in rendering honors to a fallen Airman.

I wish you could have seen those 21 Airmen execute their mission. It was impressive. Picture the five Airmen carrying the colors, the six pallbearers holding the flag over the casket, and the lieutenant and senior master sergeant standing guard over them all ... motionless.

Imagine the jolt of emotion through your body when the first shots of the 21-gun salute rang out. And the haunting sound of a lone bugler playing "Taps."

But now imagine what it would have been like if none of it happened because McGuire AFB didn't have 21 dedicated, selfless Airmen who understood the importance of executing that mission ... THE mission. No colors. No flag over the casket. No 21-gun salute. No bugler. It would have been a totally different funeral -- certainly not the kind that our Airmen deserve.

Luckily, it didn't happen that way, thanks to 21 fine Airmen, and thanks to their supervisors and commanders who sent those 21 Airmen to New York that day to lay this fine Airman and warrior to rest.

The honor guard is a vital part of our Air Force. Consider joining their team. And supervisors, encourage your Airmen to join the honor guard and support their mission ... THE mission ... of taking care of our Airmen.