News: Behind polished brass: soldiers of the I Corps Honor Guard
Story by Sgt. Mark Miranda
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – Two rifle cases containing ceremonial M1 Garands lay on a table in the teacher’s lounge at East Olympia Elementary School. On a pegboard nearby, hooks hold the garment bags carrying Army service uniforms owned by the I Corps Honor Guard.
Today, the four soldiers selected for the honor guard detail accompany the 56th Army Band, currently touring schools near JBLM in support of the “Music in Our Schools Month” program. While the band readies for their performance, the honor guard uses the teacher’s lounge as a dressing room.
“What’s our cue?” asks Spc. James Littlefield, as he inspects the white gloves he’ll be wearing.
“They open with ‘The Muppets’ theme song, and then we present the colors,” says Sgt. Eli Dove, their team leader.
Spc. Noah Prive, 24, a cannon crewmember previously assigned to 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, is amused by this.
“The Muppets? Really? How does that one go again? I haven’t heard it in a long time,” Prive says as he unrolls a flag-bearer’s harness.
One of them uses his phone to look it up, and soon the upbeat melody is playing. A few expressions of recognition, and then they’re humming along as they help one another with the final articles of their uniforms.
Their headwear is last. The soldiers of the honor guard don their service caps with their white gloves on to keep fingerprints from smudging the patent leather brims.
Minutes later they are in position in the school assembly room as the drum roll begins. One rifle-bearing guard to the front, one at the rear, as the soldiers bearing the U.S. and the Washington State flags march out to the center of the room. Today’s detail calls for a presentation of the colors.
The movements are crisp and deliberate, and the stoic faces on this team display an unyielding military bearing. Their Army service uniforms are meticulously put together, not a scuff mark or fingerprint to be found on any of the brass components.
The U.S. flag comes forward, and the honor guard presents arms as the National Anthem plays. Another drum roll sounds, and the flags march out of the room. The soldiers return to the dressing room.
“Nobody messed up today; that’s always good,” says Prive once the team is gathered in the lounge, ready to depart.
Since the I Corps Honor Guard’s soldiers serve in a ceremonial unit, they’re chosen through meeting criteria such as demonstrated physical skills and the manual dexterity needed to handle flags and ceremonial rifles. They must be in compliance with height and weight standards. Those soldiers chosen for assignment to the honor guard are tested for competence in performing ceremonial duty.
The I Corps Honor Guard prefers to take soldiers that are 5’ 10” or taller, and have an Army Physical Fitness Test score of 260 or better. The honor guard seeks soldiers who are highly motivated and have high standards of appearance and conduct.
“Maybe there’s a perception that soldiers get sent to us and they’re in - just like that - with no problems. There is a period of integration where we have eyes on you to see if you’d be a good fit for the group,” said Sgt. 1st Class Devon Grier, non-commissioned officer in charge of the honor guard.
The screening process begins at brigade levels, as the soldiers selected to go to the honor guard are usually hand-picked by that unit’s command sergeant major.
“There’s a written knowledge test, specific to the honor guard. ‘What do certain parts of the flags represent?’ That kind of thing. But this is not just for them to know it, but for the vets who like to come up to us during ceremonies and talk for a while. It’s good to know the equipment we use. A lot of them have fond memories of the M1 Garand, having used them in the Korean War,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Sims, one of the honor guard team leaders.
Their newest addition, Sgt. Zachary Singer, is an infantryman who was chosen for the honor guard from 2nd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, four weeks after his arrival to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Singer replaced a soldier who returned to the 2/2 SBCT for its upcoming deployment.
“I have some dwell time, so this was a good [opportunity]. They ask that soldiers designated to the honor guard be able to commit for a one year assignment,” said Singer, who deployed twice with 2nd Bde., 25th Infantry Division.
After in-processing, he’ll get an orientation to cover all aspects of what the honor guard does. Singer will join one of the two six-soldier teams; with Grier serving as their NCOIC, there are 13 soldiers currently serving in the I Corps Honor Guard.
“Everything has to be dress right dress; everyone knows one another’s position,” Sims said. “[Singer] has to be able to get to know us. He has to be able to meet the standard, to be able to do these tasks with all the repetition required of them,” Sims added.
Military honor guards may serve as ambassadors to the public. They present a positive image of their service, and assist with the Army’s recruiting effort. The I Corps Honor Guard is called on to participate in the occasional parade, and serves in an area that spans Idaho, Oregon and California.
Pfc. Tommy Rodriguez, a technical engineer from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, has been with the honor guard for six months and came from 555th Engineer Brigade.
“When we come to the honor guard, that first day we’re given materials to study for the written test,” Rodriguez said.
Then comes what each of the members refers to as the stand test.
“If you can’t pass it, you don’t get in. You have to be able to hold the Army’s flag for an hour, three minutes of it at present arms. It’s not light, it’s around 40 pounds,” Rodriguez said.
The provisional member of the honor guard then gets a 10 minute break.
“After that, you stand holding an M1 Garand rifle that weighs 9.3 pounds for an hour, with five minutes of that at present arms. It’s ultimately a test of military bearing, to see if you can handle both the physical and mental demands of the job,” Sims said.
Once Singer got past all of those initial welcoming tasks, he stepped right into full rehearsals.
The first thing new members learn is the PPR – the post, present and retiring for the colors.
“The first impressions when I came into the honor guard, it was a unique experience. I wasn’t quite expecting to be involved with such high-ranking people. I mean, in a line unit you generally don’t interact with someone higher ranking than a company commander – here you’re constantly around colonels, general officers. And the level of professionalism is certainly different, you always keep that military bearing in check,” Rodriguez said.
“Sure, there’s times when we’re more relaxed and joking around, but you have to have that sense of time and place. Certain types of soldiers do well here, definitely the more respectful and squared-away (you are) the better,” Rodriguez added.
One of the most significant roles for the honor guard is to provide funeral honors for soldiers, to include performing a 21-gun salute. An honor guard may also serve as the "guardians of the colors" by displaying and escorting the national flag on ceremonial occasions at official state functions.
Finally, honor guards usually provide detachments for review by visiting heads of state.
“We maintain flags for the general, including the ones on their houses. When there are special events we prepare and set up flags. When there’s VIPs, we’ll often become the custodians, the flag-wranglers and caretakers for those high ranking visitors’ colors,” Sims said.
On April 12, World War II Japanese-American veterans from the Nisei Veterans Committee will present nine of the honor guard soldiers with the Congressional Gold Medal.
But for the I Corps Honor Guard, it’s business as usual this week. Singer carried the National flag for a “Music in Our Schools Program,” his first as a team leader. For the rest of the honor guard, they have an upcoming NCO induction ceremony and more rehearsals.