Robins squad travels wide area to send veterans out with honor

Unit at Robins Air Force Base travels the state to perform funerals of Air Force vets

Staff Sgt. Javaris Warthen talks about the training volunteers go through to perfect the solemn business of being in the honor guard.
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Staff Sgt. Javaris Warthen talks about the training volunteers go through to perfect the solemn business of being in the honor guard.

For one unit at Robins Air Force Base, every day is Memorial Day.

The Robins Honor Guard is most visible to the community when performing at public ceremonies at the Museum of Aviation and elsewhere. But its primary task is to serve in the funerals of Air Force veterans.

The Robins unit is responsible for performing in all funerals of Air Force veterans in a region that includes most of Georgia and Tennessee and a small part of South Carolina. Together with an attached smaller unit at Dobbins Air Force Base, the airmen performed 1,801 ceremonies and funerals last year. Most were funerals.

Any veteran, no matter the length of service, can get an honor guard detail for a funeral as long as the veteran was honorably discharged.

The Robins unit includes 22 airmen who serve on six-month rotations away from their regular assignments, along with four full-time staffers. Some volunteer to do it, while others are sent by their commanders — sometimes when they perceive an airman needs to have more pride in the Air Force.

They go through a crash course to learn all the moves and precision that goes into it, and after about a week they may perform at funerals, although training continues.

Master Sgt. Mark Reed was a communications technician in the 78th Air Base Wing when the job of Honor Guard program manager came open. He had never served in the unit before, but applied for the job and got it last September.

“I’ve always been impressed with the structure of the military and the Honor Guard takes it up another notch,” he said as the team practiced a funeral outdoors recently. “It’s giving that opportunity to pay back to our fallen comrades in arms.”

They can make a curious site when they practice outside of their building alongside busy Peacekeeper Way. They have a coffin on back of a pick-up truck to simulate a hearse, and the airmen act as pall bearers to take it to a simulated grave site.

A key feature of that is a female airmen sitting in a chair. She very convincingly portrays a grieving widow, weeping loudly as the folded flag is presented to her. It’s a vital part of the practice because one of the hardest things the airmen have to do is maintain their composure. That can be especially difficult when the deceased airman has small children.

“We train them not to break,” Reed said. “They are there to support the family, not grieve with the family. When you get through it, it’s a real prideful moment knowing you were there being kind of that rock during a moment of despair for the family.”

As the flag presentation is done, a bugler standing off at a distance slowly plays taps, but he isn’t really playing. They use an electronic bugle that plays the music while the airman just holds it up to his lips.

Reed said that’s because they don’t always have someone who can play a bugle, but he has a couple of airman now who are trumpeters and want to give it a try.

Airman 1st Class Justin Dixon has been with the unit since mid April. His regular job is a comptroller in the 78th Air Base Wing. He said he volunteered for the unit.

“I’m here because I love to honor those who served for us,” he said. “They fought for us so it’s now time to fight for them.”

He has enjoyed the fact that the Honor Guard is made up of airmen who serve in units across the base.

“We all come together as one and become a family and we learn,” he said. “That experience that we gain, in handing off the flag to the next of kin, when you go back to the office you are definitely not going to be the same person for sure.”

Wayne Crenshaw: 478-256-9725, @WayneCrenshaw1