Colors: out in front

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Katherine Windish
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs
"I still get the chills," said Staff Sgt. Lee Langston, United States Air Force Honor Guard ceremonial guardsman, about entering Arlington National Cemetery. "Even after four years here, there's nothing more humbling."

Colors Airmen carry the national flag in military ceremonies as part of an Air Force or joint service colors team to include executing military honors for fallen Airmen at Arlington National Cemetery, the main mission of all ceremonial guardsmen in the Air Force Honor Guard, retirements, promotions, ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknowns, state dinners and presidential inaugurations. They consider this their honor and duty.

"Being a ceremonial guardsman comes first," said Senior Airman Christopher E. Cowell, Honor Guard colors trainer. "Honoring our fellow Airmen in Arlington is what we came here to do and it is a privilege I can't describe."

Before earning the right to carry the national flag, colors Airmen must go through an intense training regimen beginning in technical school. The regimen starts with the basics of weight training to cope with the weight of the flag and standing at attention for hours at a time, increasing stamina and perfecting military bearing. Trainees then begin training with weighted flag poles and going through the motions of the most basic ceremonies, gradually progressing to more high-profile, intricate ceremonies as they complete more qualifications. The colors element has a total of 23 qualifications - more than any other element in the Honor Guard.

One of the most important parts of their training is training to prepare for the elements. Colors Airmen are often called to perform their duties in all kinds of weather: extreme temperatures, high winds, snow or rain.

"The flag weighs so much it could literally blow you away in high winds," said Airman 1st Class Daniel Bennet, Honor Guard ceremonial guardsman. "I've seen new troops without training get dragged backwards when the wind catches their flag."

To prepare for this and ensure it doesn't happen during a ceremony, trainees are taken to the Potomac River waterfront on Bolling Air Force Base.

"We train on the Potomac when the waves turn white," said Sergeant Langston. "It means the wind gusts are higher, sometimes 40 miles per hour or more. It makes for better training, it prepares you for anything."

Colors Airmen also have a responsibility to be experts on all parts of the ceremony, not only their own. Not only do they bear the national and Air Force color, as the guidon bearers they ensure that the other elements are spot-on in their execution of the ceremony. If any member of the ceremony makes a mistake it is the guidon bearer's responsibility to correct the error and ensure the ceremony continues as smoothly as possible.

"Protocol knowledge is essential to being a colors Airman," said Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Williams, Honor ceremonial guardsman. "You have to know each sequence perfectly and be ready for any possible scenario."

Working at places like the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery constantly puts colors Airmen in the public eye, often appearing on national news channels like CNN during events like the presidential inauguration, President Gerald Ford's state funeral makes them representatives of the United States Air Force. Working at arrivals and state dinners honoring foreign heads of state also puts them in a position where they must represent the United States as a whole.

"Its part of our job to represent not only our service, but also our nation," said Staff Sgt. Nathan Farber, Honor Guard ceremonial guardsman. "As colors we are representatives of a collective whole."