The last to let you down

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Katherine Windish
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs
The flag snaps with the precise and deliberate movements of white-gloved hands. The body bearers' motions are fluid, timed perfectly, for that is what the United States Air Force Honor Guard body bearers personify: perfection. Their standards of flawlessness are set out of necessity to honor the fallen heroes they bear.

"We are a part of the last memory a family has of their loved one," said Staff Sgt. Keith Wilkinson, Honor Guard body bearer. "Because of that we strive for perfection."

Not only do they bear heroes, they are heroes in their own right. Their careers as body bearers begin with intense training and continue with the hardships that present themselves every day during the funeral ceremonies they perform.

It is required for all body bearers to memorize the following Body Bearer's Creed at the start of training:

Body bearing is an art, one which encompasses heart, knowledge, strength and dedication.

Every movement is crisp, precise and well-rehearsed, for we are a team and together we are one.

Appearance is important, for not only do we represent ourselves, but also each member, past and present, of the United States Air Force.

Regardless of the weight of the casket or the distance of the carry, the casket will remain level.

Effortless is our expression shown on every job for we are prepared for the task at hand.

Reliable: we will be the last to let you down.

Second to none, except for the one above.

"The creed is everything we do: from our uniform to the carry itself. If one person is not completely up to par - it's not good enough," said Senior Airman Travis Chisum, Honor Guard body bearer.

Starting with the basics of physical conditioning and weight training in technical school, body bearers are trained in every aspect of the funeral ceremony. Training gets more in depth after technical school while learning the different parts of a funeral while using the platform designed to replicate a gravesite. Weighted caskets are carried around the squadron area to become accustomed to different kinds of weight distribution. The defined motions of flag folding are practiced repeatedly.

"We have to run through the job exactly how it would look at Arlington National Cemetery," said Airman Jarrett Adair, Honor Guard body bearer. "There are a lot of situations we have to prepare for, things that might go wrong. We need to account for those in training so mistakes don't happen when we're at Arlington."

One of the most important lessons body bearers learn is the military bearing that must be maintained, even during training.

"Our creed says 'Effortless is our expression shown on every job for we are prepared for the task at hand,'" said Senior Airman Aaron Sanders, Honor Guard body bearer. "In order to do something effortlessly you have to be 100 percent prepared 100 percent of the time."

"Not only do we represent ourselves, but like the creed says, every member of the United States Air Force, past and present," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Malyemezian, Honor Guard body bearer. "The casket may be heavy, you might be spent, but no one should see that. I can look across the casket at the other bearer and it's like a mirror, our expressions are the same."

Before a bearer can perform any funerals he must earn qualifications.

"It could take months or up to a year to qualify a bearer," said Airman Sanders.

The difficulties they face in training are necessary to prepare the bearers for the difficulties they will face on the job.

From standing for hours in frigid weather to carrying caskets that can be up to 1,200 pounds over uneven ground and around large headstones, there are many obstacles.

"We adapt Body bearers are proactive rather than reactive, and rehearse ways to adjust to unexpected circumstances that might happen during the funeral such as an incorrectly placed flag or a rolled ankle. and overcome," said Sergeant Malyemezian.

The non-commissioned officer in charge of the pall bearers also inspects the path they will take to the gravesite beforehand to ensure the ground is even and void of tripping hazards.

"My goal is to make sure the job goes well," said Airman Xavier Ballerd, Honor Guard body bearer. "We want the family to have the best memory possible of what the Air Force provided their loved one."

As hard as body bearing is physically, the job is also very emotionally challenging.

They're bearing a fellow Airman, one of their own.

"I have empathy for the family, I understand how they feel and I want them to know I feel their pain," said Airman 1st Class Justin Baker, Honor Guard body bearer.

"It isn't just about the carry," said Airman Adair. "It takes a certain kind of person to do what we do; to put feeling behind it and for it to mean something. The creed says 'we're the last to let you down.' And that's the way it is."

Intense training, the physical and emotional stress of the job and their common creed all help form the brotherhood-like bond the team has with one another.

"This is the strongest brotherhood I've ever been a part of," said Airman Baker. "These guys truly are my brothers; there's nothing I wouldn't do for them. I wouldn't trade it for anything else in the world."

Some team members believe body bearers are not made, they are born. Some even feel as though they were drawn to this job, like Staff Sgt. Jorge Cortijo, Honor Guard body bearer, who first realized he wanted to do this special duty when he was tasked to carry military remains after a helicopter crash during a deployment to Afghanistan.

"We were in single-digit weather carrying an aluminum casket and one of the guys mentioned something about the cold," he said. "Another guy said 'I bet he wishes he could feel cold.' That will stay with me forever."