Honor Guard service creates memorable experiences

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
When Staff Sgt. Matthew Duggie was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., more than six years ago, his supervisors "voluntold" him to join the Honor Guard there.

However, by the time he finished his first funeral detail, Duggie, now the NCO-in charge of standardization, evaluation and training for the Air Force Academy Honor Guard, was hooked.

The funeral took place somewhere north of Birmingham. It was summertime, which meant enduring 90-plus-degree heat and 100-percent humidity while wearing thick service coats and wheel caps that double as ovens in Alabama's oppressive summer.

But that's not what Duggie remembers.

"I remember the Hearse approaching," he said. "I remember the family approaching, and I tried to remember my training. I was trying to perfect all my movements, pay attention to what I was doing. I remember carrying the casket with the flag, keeping my head up and being strong for the family.

"I remember folding the flag and the widow crying," he recalled. "Then of course Taps -- Taps and the firing party," which conducts the three-volley salute at the end of a funeral service.
By the time he got back to Maxwell, he was hooked.

"Once it was all over, I thought to myself, 'I could definitely do this for a long time,'" he said. "You could actually see once you completed a mission, the impact -- it was right there. It 'reblues' you every time you do it."

Duggie joined the Academy Honor Guard soon after moving here in December of 2010. Its mission has a narrow scope, covering funeral services at the Academy Cemetery. In contrast, the High Frontier Honor Guard, which includes Peterson and Schriever AFBs and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, covers most of Colorado and parts of western Kansas.
Despite that smaller scope, though, the Academy's Honor Guard still finds itself short-staffed.

"We currently have 18 Airmen, but you need 20 to conduct an active-duty funeral," Duggie said. That number includes an officer in charge, six pallbearers, seven firing party members, NCOICs for the pallbearers and the firing party and a four-person color guard. Active-duty funerals also require a bugler, which the Air Force Academy Band provides.

Duggie has spoken with Airmen in the First-Term Airman's Center and to the Airmen's Council and 5/6 Council, but recruiting efforts have fallen flat.

"With the manning, supervisors don't want to let their people go," he said. "But one thing supervisors should realize is that they'll lose their Airmen for a total of about 15 hours a month, including training."

The sense of purpose that comes with serving in the Honor Guard makes that time worthwhile, said Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Ludwig, the Academy's command chief.

"The Air Force Academy Honor Guard is obligated to fulfill the congressionally mandated requirements for funerals, which are the most significant events the Honor Guard must execute," Ludwig said. "We hope that Airmen value the profession of arms in a way that helps them volunteer their time and energy."

"It's so easy to be stuck day to day at our desks, doing whatever we do, and then going home to our families," Duggie said. "Serving in the honor guard constantly reminds you of what the mission is and what we do."