The ritual of the Honor Guard is an important part of a funeral service for a standard military funeral. It is different from a 21-gun salute. A 21-gun salute usually relates to the firing of cannons or artillery to honor a dignitary. It is a common mistake people make to confuse an honor guard team firing three volleys from a rifle with a 21-gun salute. The tradition comes from battlefield ceasefires used as a time to clear the dead and wounded from the battlefield. Once finishing the gruesome task of dragging off the bodies of the dead the firing of three volleys would signal it was time to return to hostilities. The other main duties of the honor guard include the folding of the flag and the playing of taps.
As a member of an Army Honor Guard, I learned a few things. I learned that it is not an easy gig. I volunteered thinking that it would be an easy detail that would keep me out of a couple training exercises. I cannot express how hot it is in Texas during the summer while in dress greens.
The biggest lesson, among others, is how important it was to the families. This was a different time. It was before the Gulf War when veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, weren’t exactly treated with the respect due a veteran. A veteran that had served during an unpopular war and was shunned by politicians and activists while carrying baggage they would never be rid of. The families had suffered, in many ways, as much as the soldier. It was a big deal for their loved one to finally be recognized by the military they had so dutifully served.
It truly was a humbling experience that I did not appreciate the gravity of even while participating. Only in retrospect do I understand how important the detail was to many of the deceased loved ones. On the occasion, we did meet family members. They were quick to thank us and ask questions about the state of affairs in the military. We were invited to more than one family dinner. Meeting the families was always a sad and somber moment filled with hush tones and whispered thanks.
The honor guard was a short but memorable chapter in my military career. It was a detail that I volunteered for thinking I could get out of the usual drudgery of a training exercise. Attending military funerals as part of the honor guard and meeting the families was a learning experience I will never forget.