The 12 soldiers of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division’s funeral honor guard have been deployed to combat and have jobs ranging across the spectrum, but many would say that rendering final honors to a veteran is the most rewarding job they’ve done in the Army.
“I prefer it,” said Staff Sgt. Travis Strickland. “It’s a lot more fulfilling than my normal duty. I’m doing something people appreciate.”
Since April 1, the honor guard from the brigade’s Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, has attended about 40 funerals in Central Texas and as far as Lufkin, Abilene and San Angelo, to honor veterans.
The job, while rewarding, requires solid focus, Strickland said.
During the first couple of funerals, the team was unsteady and nervous, but after a few more, a routine started to develop. The nerves are still there, though.
“You’re concerned with doing a good job,” Strickland said.
Staff Sgt. Luke Himmelreich agreed.
“Most are stressful, really, because you don’t want to mess up. You want to honor the veteran,” he said.
For Himmelreich, the stress compounds during his interaction with the family. After soldiers fold an American flag 13 times — while everyone watches in silence — Himmelreich must hand it to the veteran’s relative and say, “On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
“If you ask me when I’m old, I’ll still be able to recite that,” he said. “Anytime you do a flag presentation to the next of kin, you never forget that.”
The honor guard is divided into one eight-man team and two, two-man teams. A veteran’s time of service determines which team attends the funeral and what honors are rendered.
When the teams first formed, they took the initial funeral honor guard class, then practiced for a week. Now, they practice weekly and attend about two funerals a week.
Soldiers rarely interact directly with the family, but have received thanks and appreciation afterward.
“They will say thank you and that it means a lot to them,” said Spc. Dan Barr. “They usually have a lot of gratitude.”
At one funeral, Spc. Bradley Manning said the nephew of the veteran was an active-duty officer, who thanked the team by presenting them with a coin.
Strickland said when he talks with his family about his work on the team, he tries to keep it light — just as he did when deployed — talking about the trip or the hotel where they stayed. No matter how many funerals the team attends, the soldiers agreed each one has an impact.
After the July 4 weekend, the team will separate and go back to their normal jobs, but the memories will stay, said Spc. Matthew Russo.
“It’s rewarding,” he said. “I will think about it and remember it for the rest of my life, for sure.”