VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia – Nine Virginia National Guard Soldiers completed Level 1 Funeral Honors training June 20-27 to conduct professional military funeral honors in accordance with service tradition.
“There’s a whole other level of pride and honor associated with being a part of the funeral honors team,” said 2nd Lt. Valerie Hernandez, a Soldier in the class assigned to the Gate City-based 1032nd Transportation Company, 1030th Transportation Battalion, 329th Regional Support Group. “I feel like this is important because every veteran deserves to get their honors and respect when the time comes.”
Begun in January 2007, the Virginia National Guard Military Funeral Honors Program includes six teams throughout the state that provide funeral details, not just to National Guard Soldiers, but to veterans of the active Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard.
They have performed more than 28,000 funeral services throughout the commonwealth, averaging more than 200 services each month.
“I volunteered because I thought it would be an opportune moment to give back to all the veterans who served,” said Pfc. William Parker, another Soldier in the course assigned to the 1032nd. “I feel like I am part of something bigger than myself. I’m taking home a sense of duty.”
There are three levels of training in the military funeral honors program. Level 1 is the foundation and how to perform the services. Level 2 goes into instructing and how to become more of a trainer. Level 3 is used as a recertification for anyone who has an expired Level 2 certification.
“Level 1 is a foundation for the Soldiers to move forward,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Cain, the senior instructor for the Virginia National Guard Funeral Honors Program. “Most Soldiers who come through Level 1 training have no experience doing funeral honors.”
It’s important to start with a good foundation, and that all begins with drill and ceremony, according to Cain. Funeral Honors does not do typical drill and ceremony movements Soldiers typically experience in the Army.
“We have to change them to make them flow with what we do,” Cain said. “It’s all about getting these Soldiers where they know how to go out and honor veterans the correct way.”
In addition to drill and ceremony, the Soldiers in the course train on how to do drill and ceremony with the M14 rifle, which they use for ceremonies.
“Then they learn two-Soldier flag folds, two-Soldier details, three-Soldier flag folds, three-Soldier details, and they finish with doing a firing party and pallbearing for a full honors service for retirees,” said Sgt. Sam Conolly, a funeral honors trainer.
“Everything we do builds on something else,” explained Cain. “By the end of the course, every Soldier should know every single position.”
There is also a focus on physical fitness and uniform standards during the course.
“It’s really important to not only do the part, but you have to look the part as well,” Conolly said. “We’re honoring families and we want to represent the Army the best we can.”
But maybe the biggest lesson in the course is how important this duty is.
“We try to teach the Soldiers this is a way for them to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Cain said. “We’re not here for us. We’re here for those families, for those veterans.”
As an example, Cain said Soldiers performing the ceremony do not wear their name tapes.
“The reason we don’t wear our name tapes is because we’re there for the families. This is one of the most selfless things you can do,” he said. “It has such a sense of pride once the Soldiers understand they’re there to honor the families, not themselves. That is one of the greatest feelings I have as an instructor.”
One thing they can’t prepare the Soldiers for is the emotions they may feel when the ceremony starts.
“The one thing we can’t train them for is when they get out there in front of a family,” Cain said. “I still get that knot in my stomach because it’s such an emotional experience for the family as well as for us.”
Cain and Conolly said the team isn’t for everyone.
“You have to want to do this,” Conolly said. “It could be 100 degrees out there. It could be 32 degrees out there. Your back could be hurting. It’s going to take a lot of commitment to stand there and do the right thing to provide the proper honors to these veterans. It takes a very special Soldier.”
“It takes a high level of commitment,” Cain added. “It’s the last thing the family is going to see and remember of their loved one served.”