Answering the Call of Duty on Veteran's Day

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Newell
It's only noon, Nov. 12, and Airman 1st Class Byran Hrinek is exhausted. In the past 24 hours, he's borne the U.S. Air Force Flag during a five-hour wreath dedication at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, Va. He's also supported several funerals at Arlington.

Airman Hrinek answered the call of duty on Veterans Day as part of a Joint Service color team that executed 48 individual maneuvers flawlessly in front of an international audience.

"It can be a stressful job at times," said Senior Airman Jacob Proffer, a fellow guardsman who has played a similar role at ceremonies on one of the military's most sacred shrines. "When you're standing there at the Tomb, it's best to not think of the mission actually, because you've already drilled so much that it is programmed and you just do it."

After an event, Airman Hrinek can recite, step-by -step, every single one of the 48 maneuvers performed by the Joint Color Guard during the ceremony, from formation to retiring the colors. As the only Airman in the formation, Airman Hrinek is the embodiment of every Airman, past and present.

Standing rigidly in formation, stage-right of the Tomb, the lone Air Force Honor Guardsman stood shoulder -to -shoulder with service members from the Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines. The 20-year-old native of Des Moines, Iowa, had thoughts of Leonard Popp, his grandfather who served in Vietnam on his mind as Vice President Joe Biden strode past him to receive the wreath dedicated at the foot of the Tomb. "He served as a cook in Vietnam in the army," explained Airman Hrinek. "So I kept thinking that this was my service to him."

Arlington National Cemetery yielded a picturesque day to the throngs of tourists, veterans and active duty service members who arrived at the tomb to witness Vice President Biden lay a wreath in honor of the fallen and unidentified. The sun pierced cold, still, fall air as trees slowly shed layers of blazing color. All flag bearers pay close attention to the wind's behavior, which was calm throughout the ceremony.

"Most of the event, I had the flag or the streamers in my eyes," said Airman Hrinek. Calm air left all flags limp. "I literally was blinded by Air Force Blue, so I did a lot of it by sound and just listened for the NCO's orders." In fact, he heard Vice President Biden's stride, but did not see him, though they were close enough to touch.

The U.S. Air Force flag is laden with streamers of many colors. Each streamer is imprinted with major battles and skirmishes Airmen were active in. While the Army and Marines have streamers dating back to before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the Air Force makes up for it in the sheer number of engagements where air power has been a deciding factor.

It took 10 weeks of training for Airman Hrinek to get to the point where he could tune out the present during a ceremony and execute the motions without thought. "Even though I may have done this four or five times this week, for the families at Arlington, it's probably their first time," he explains. "Our job is to do everything on point and with precision. I do that by actually going somewhere else mentally."

Guardsmen fell in at 5:30 a.m. for inspection prior to the 11 a.m. wreath laying. Every loose thread is snipped, shoe scuffs are spotted and wiped out, medals are polished to a high sheen. "We're representing the Air Force here, every day," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Daugherty, the NCO leading morning inspections. "Everyone is trained to the same standards to execute the mission at Arlington, so everyone is examined to the same standards on all jobs."

After piling into buses and departing Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C. for Arlington, the chat starts between guardsmen who have executed similar missions. "Did you see the guy who passed out a few years ago?" one asked Airman Hrinek. "Man, I'd hate to see that again!" said another, leaning over Airman Hrinek's straight bench seat. The mild-mannered jabs are a way to psych up for the job. Guardsmen know failure is a misstep away, so reminders of past blunders help Airmen focus on the current task.

"I'm not too worried," said Airman Hrinek, upon arrival at the grounds next to the Tomb. Service members from all branches are forming up around him, following sharp, curt calls of "Attention!" and "Fall In!" Airman Hrinek bats a falling leaf from his eye and unfurls the flag as streamers burst out in all directions. "Yeah, I get the flutters before a job, but it's a great job!"

He's got both past and future on his mind during endless drills and multiple weekly ceremonies which can blur together into one. "You can't think about your arms, or your legs and how tired it all is," he says. He cites the University of Iowa Hawkeyes as one of the major topics he thinks about during drills and ceremonies. After his tour with of duty in The USAF Honor Guard, Airman Hrinek has his sights set on becoming an F-22 Raptor crew chief.

He is one of thousands who joined the Air Force with one goal in mind: Become a pilot. He hopes that his next assignment will take him one step closer to his goal job and to the F-22 aircraft he's targeted. Though the date is uncertain, he's guaranteed the chance to train as a crew chief for the F-22 Raptor.

"It's sleek. It's fast. It's the best thing we've got right now, and I really want to be in the cockpit," he declares. Experience on the crew will hopefully give him more in-depth knowledge of the avionics and mechanical underpinnings of the aircraft, though he'll need a degree and an officer's commission before he finds himself at the stick. Until then, he plans on pursuing a pilot's license at a local air field.

Right now, Airman Hrinek, along with all guardsmen, is focused on the next mission.