Glimpse into life of USAF Honor Guard drill members

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Krystal M. Jeffers
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Five men march slowly and purposefully between the crowd as they advance from the back of the room toward the front stage. Their blue caps hide the men's faces as they look down. Four of them hold fully-functioning Garand M-1 rifles with bayonets attached to their tips. The other holds a long saber. Once at the front, the five men dressed in blues separate from their straight line. The riflemen stand in a circle around the other Airman.

Moving very precisely, the riflemen circle the other man. The rifles clap noisily as the Airmen hit the butt of the rifle to the ground, spin them around in their hands and trade them with each other with sharp movements. As the riflemen move, their tempo speeds up. The weapons flip over the head of the Airman in the center and the riflemen's bayonets circle around his throat without touching, but throughout the entire performance the center Airman never flinches or loses composure. The riflemen never miss a beat or fumble as they move with crisp movements.

The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team performed a weapons demonstration like the one described to recruit new drill team members and to inspire Airmen here, March 15.

Col. Lance Kildron, 20th Fighter Wing vice commander, observed the demonstration.

After the performance he exclaimed, "It was amazing! That was the first time I have been honored with their presence and it was an outstanding performance."

Kildron wasn't the only one amazed with the drill team's performance.

"I thought it was awesome," said Senior Airman Marcella Hengehold, 9th Air Force knowledge operations manager. "I liked their precision and their concentration. They were on cue, and there was no loss of concentration."

The 23 Airmen who make up this unique team spend hours every duty day perfecting and honing their skills.

"A duty day is 10 hours long," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Vanderbeck, USAF Honor Guard NCO in charge of training. "We start the day with physical training, and we try to integrate strength training with cardio."

Physical training is an important aspect of the drill team because the rifles they spin and toss weigh approximately 11 pounds, said Vanderbeck.

"We compare doing a drill to doing a five kilometer race," said the native of Charlotte, N.C.. "The amount of endurance and stamina you need to do a drill is roughly the same."

After physical training, the team spends time practicing drills.

"We practice for six to eight hours a day," he continued. "We will practice individual moves. We also practice in formations and run through different sequences to perfect the drill. You have to perfect the moves because if you throw them right you won't hurt yourself."

When a rifle is thrown incorrectly injuries can occur like hurt wrists, broken fingers, sore hands and small cuts. Currently, one of Vanderbeck's fingers is broken.

"It is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my career," Vanderbeck said. "To be at this level, you have to put in hours and hours of work. To become one of the best you have to put time into your own schedule and hours after work. Sometimes you work through lunch trying to perfect movements."

Despite the difficulties of their job, the members of the team love their duty.

"I love my job very much," said Airman 1st Class Brandon Clement, USAF Honor Guard drill team member. "I love what we do. The honor guard's main mission is at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and it is to lay fallen troops to rest. I think it is awesome that I get the opportunity to do that. It is an honor that I get to serve their families, and I never thought I would be doing anything like that."

"I also love that we travel and inspire individuals," he added.

The drill team is the traveling component of the USAF Honor Guard. Their mission is to promote the Air Force mission by showcasing drill performances to recruit, retain and inspire Airmen, according to the USAF Honor Guard website.

This includes performing demonstrations at places like schools.

"My favorite part of being on the USAF Honor Guard is performing at high schools," said Vanderbeck. "It reaffirms why I do what I do. You can really tell that they love what you are doing and you are impacting young individuals."

Vanderbeck first saw the drill team when he was in high school which influenced his decision to join the military.

"I was in Junior ROTC and thought I was just going to do it while I was in high school and have fun, but when I saw the drill team it made me want to do something better with my life," Vanderbeck said. "I love being on the drill team because I get to inspire people like I was."

Others on the team saw the drill team after they already joined the military like Clement did.

"When I saw them perform I saw that they were flawless," he said as he remembered a video he saw during basic training. "They were an awe inspiring group of people."

Once they joined the team, members learned various important lessons.

"The drill team has taught me a lot about commitment and believing in myself," Clement said. "Before I joined the military I wasn't really confident in who I was or what I could do. Since I made the drill team it has given me a sense of accomplishment and has shown me that I can actually do it if I put my mind to it. It has taught me how to perceive and overcome."

Other lessons included teamwork and trust, Vanderbeck said.

"We are feet from each other throwing around a weapon with a knife on the end," he added. "If we don't work as a team, weapons hit the ground and people get hurt. So, teamwork is vital for the team. It really comes down to trusting the people you work with and trusting yourself."

The trust between members allows them to toss the weapons over and around each other without flinching, even when the bayonets are resting inches from their throats. Their ability to maintain military bearing and discipline despite the potential danger contribute to the success of their performances, which can be enjoyed worldwide as the team travels from base to base.