|Oregon Military Funeral Honors Team wins National Guard Bureau's first honor guard competition
‘Only one chance' First honor guard competition strives for excellence among Guard teams
By Staff Sgt. W. Michael Houk
National Guard Bureau
RENO, Nev. (4/5/2007) – Staff Sgt. Jeromy Turner knows all about the finality of funerals, about the idea that you have only one chance to make a good first impression.
"We only have one chance per veteran. We may do 12 services in one day, and every service has to be perfect," said Turner, a team leader for the Oregon Army National Guard Military Funeral Honors Program.
When we're not honoring veterans, we're training," Turner added. "We're doing our after action reviews and rehearsals so that we can go out and honor these veterans the best we can."
That was the special bond among the members of eight state teams that participated in the National Guard Bureau's first competition for Army Guard honor guard teams on March 20-22.
Teams of seven Soldiers, from Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Utah converged on the Stead Training Facility, an Army Guard site on the outskirts of Reno, to see how close to perfection they could come.
The competition was the result of the Guard Bureau's efforts to standardize the way that state teams render final military honors to the people being buried and their families.
"These are probably the best teams from across the nation," said Ari Morales, the operations coordinator for Nevada's honor guard program. "[They are] competing in order to identify what team is upholding our standards the most and representing the National Guard Bureau in the way that they should be," added Morales who also helped coordinate the competition.
Members of the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) from Fort Myer, Va., which participates in thousands of funerals every year and guards the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, were the evaluators. They came at the request of Staff Sgt. Tyrone Kosa, a former member of the "Old Guard" who now manages the Army Guard's Honor Guard Program and who developed and organized the event.
"Staff Sgt. Kosa is an amazing NCO," said Morales. "He's definitely a go-getter. He made this thing happen from the ground up." Morales said it took nine months for Kosa and himself to put the competition together.
Each day began with an exhaustive in-ranks inspection during which Old Guard NCOs "hard-eyed" each Soldier from head to toe. They used rulers to check the uniforms. They wrote down the "gigs," or discrepancies, they discovered. They checked things like hat placement. Did the brim sit two fingers from the bridge of the nose? Was the hatband parallel to the marching surface?
Then the best of the Army Guard's best had themselves rated on all aspects of performing a funeral for a fallen veteran – from lifting caskets and urns out of hearses to firing the customary salute with M-14 rifles and presenting the folded flag to a deceased's family member.
Participants perfected personal appearance by cleaning their black shiny shoes with glass cleaner and blackening the soles with edge dressing. Furthermore, someone on each team dusted shoes and used a lint roller on uniforms prior to each event.
The judges scored events according to strict regulations and, to make things more challenging, Kosa threw in a few twists. He administered a 60-question written exam on the history of memorial affairs. The participants ran a grueling, timed obstacle course which had to be done twice – once for time and then repeated in full dress blues while performing honors; both times while carrying a casket weighted down by 200 pounds of sandbags.
At 3:30 a.m. on the last day, Kosa interrupted the participants' sweet dreams when he quietly told them they had a half hour to prepare their uniforms and get on busses waiting to take them to the airfield. There they performed "honorable transfers" in below freezing temperatures from a Nevada Air Guard C-130 waiting on the flight line. Later that morning, participants were grilled by members of a board headed by Brig. Gen. James Nuttall, deputy director of the Army National Guard.
Sgt. Joshua Keil from the Missouri team explained that the intense competition means more than points on a score sheet: "When I present the flag to the next of kin, and they look into my eyes with sincerity, they're looking for comfort, and I see them get just that little bit of comfort. It makes all the difference in the world."
Sgt. Delarion Perry shared that sentiment: "They come up and shake your hand after the service. That lets me know I've done my job to the fullest, the best I could do."
Later that evening, the winners were announced during a banquet before an audience of family members, state command sergeants major, adjutants general, and, of course, contestants. Erin Thede, mistress of ceremonies and chief of the Army Guard's Operations and Maintenance Branch, announced the winners in reverse order:
In third place, Tennessee. In second, Utah. The winning team, which received a saber affixed to a plaque, was the team from Oregon.
"It means the world to them," said Turner during the ensuing celebration. Turner was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Oregon team that competed. He praised the competition and also summed up what it meant for them to win and what it meant for them as veterans of the Iraq War: "Pretty much all of us are combat veterans and we all lost friends over there. Every day we do services, we'll be marching past our friends' headstones. … Going out there and being pallbearers together, it's something you can't describe."
Names and home towns of Oregon soldiers who participated in the competition are:
Staff Sgt. Jeromy Turner of Gresham, team leader.
Sgt. Charles Rice of Milwaukie
Sgt. Robert Summers of McMinnville
Sgt. Thomas Barella of Clackamas
Sgt. Kenneth Kaiser of Hillsboro
Sgt. Timothy Tompkins of Damascus
Spc. Scott Mahe of Tualatin
The team was supervised by Staff Sgt. Richard "RJ" Lawrence of Beaverton, non-commissioned officer in charge of the Oregon Military Funeral Honors Program.
The Oregon Military Funeral Honors Team was one of 8 teams who competed, one representing each of the 7 regions and a team from the host state (Nevada). Oregon's team represented region 6.
0012 Photo by Staff Sgt. W. Michael Houk, National Guard Bureau Public Affairs
A sergeant in the Oregon Military Funeral Honors Team, Charles Rice of Milwaukie, makes final corrections to the uniform of Sgt. Kenneth Kaiser of Hillsboro before competing in the Army National Guard Honor Guard competition in Reno, Nevada, March 20. The Oregon team won first place in the national competition.
0026 Photo by Staff Sgt. W. Michael Houk, National Guard Bureau Public Affairs
Members of the Oregon Military Funeral Honors Team; firing party commander, Sgt. Charles Rice of Milwaukie and the firing party from left, Sgt. Robert "Luke" Summers of McMinnville, Sgt. Kenneth Kaiser of Hillsboro, Spc. Scott Mahe of Tualatin, Sgt. Thomas Barella of Clackamas, Sgt. Timothy Tompkins of Damascus, and Staff Sgt. Jeromy Turner of Gresham, perform a rifle sequence during the Army National Guard Honor Guard competition in Reno, Nevada, March 20. The Oregon team won first place in the national competition.
0034 Photo by Staff Sgt. W. Michael Houk, National Guard Bureau Public Affairs
Sgt. Charles Rice of Milwaukie (left), Sgt. Robert Summers of McMinnville (center), Sgt. Kenneth Kaiser of Hillsboro (right), and others in the Oregon Military Funeral Honors Team perform a rifle sequence during the Army National Guard Honor Guard competition in Reno, Nevada, March 20. The Oregon team won first place in the national competition.
0038_2 Photo by Staff Sgt. W. Michael Houk, National Guard Bureau Public Affairs
The firing party commander, Sgt. Charles Rice of Milwaukie, inspects weapons of the Oregon Military Funeral Honors Team to make sure they are safe after performing in the Army National Guard Honor Guard competition in Reno, Nevada, March 20. The Oregon team won first place in the national competition.
Oregon National Guard Public Affairs
Staff Sgt. RJ Lawrence
Oregon Military Funeral Honors Program
(503) 359-9352 or (503) 991-7624