BOLLING AFB, D.C. -- The Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006 announced an expected 7 percent annual increase in military funeral honors for World War II and Korean War veterans - a requirement that continues to grow and is expected to peak around 2012.
All branches of the U.S. military were faced with the challenge of meeting an ever-growing demand -- on dwindling manpower resources in many cases -- to conduct more military funerals while maintaining the high decorum and dignity these services have always rendered to our deceased veterans.
In the Air Force, the task of creating the optimal solution fell to the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard's Training Flight, an elite 10-man team of Airmen who provide ceremonial and MFH expertise to the Air Force Honor Guard and all 225 base honor guards across the Air Force.
Tech. Sgt. Charles Forrest, 37, of Baltimore, the Honor Guard's noncommissioned officer in charge of formal training, learned of the problem in an Air Staff meeting at the Pentagon in June 2006. He immediately began developing a solution that became known as the "Seven Person Retired Funeral Honors Sequence."
In essence, the "Seven Person Retired Funeral Honors Sequence" replaced the 10-guardsmen military funeral for retired Air Force members without compromising the quality of the traditional ceremony. The major revisions changed the role of the NCOIC of the pall-bearer team to NCOIC of the entire funeral, reducing the firing line from a seven- to a three-person team and filling the role of bugler with the guardsman who also performs as the flag folder.
The "Seven Person Retired Funeral Sequence" was so successful and well received that the training flight was among five teams - and the only all-enlisted unit -- selected as winners of the 2008 Chief of Staff Team Excellence Award, an annual program that recognizes units that use a systematic approach to enhance mission capability, improve operational performance and create sustained results.
The Honor Guard Training Flight members who earned the team excellence award are Master Sgt. Robert Greenberg (team leader), Tech Sgt. Charles Forrest, Tech. Sgt. Jason Estrada, Tech. Sgt. Toby Farr, Staff Sgt. Jorge Cortijo, Staff Sgt. Alex Frizzo, Staff Sgt. Aaron Schultz, Staff Sgt. Jason Minor and Senior Airman Joshua Malyemzian and Senior Airman Peadar Clark.
"We're very excited with our selection for this award," Lt. Col. Anthony T. Taylor, U.S. Air Force Honor Guard commander, said. "It's a huge honor for the squadron."
"It was a personal achievement for me because it was something I created," said Sergeant Forrest, who authored the innovative funeral sequence, which took about three months to completely develop. In a September 2006 demonstration of the ceremony, it was approved by the Air Staff and then-Honor Guard commander Lt. Col. Gaylord Thomas. By Oct. 1, 2007, after a massive Air Force-wide base honor guard training effort that included all active duty Air Force, Reserve and National Guard Honor Guardsmen from Air Force bases around the world, the sequence was fully operational.
"To see it go from just out of my head to actually being implemented throughout the Air Force - and the culmination being that we were presented the Chief of Staff (Team) Excellence Award - I don't think there's a word you can use to describe that feeling," Sergeant Forrest said. "There are very few people in the Air Force that ever get that award - officer or enlisted. To be among those people is awesome. There are only two awards the chief of staff gives out, and this is one of them."
In 2006, Sergeant Forrest and Staff Sgt. Juana Vasquez wrote the Base Honor Guard Training Guide, a 209-page manual covering all aspects of uniform wear and ceremonial procedures, as well as a visual training guide to complement and clarify the guidelines. He also worked with Air Force Television as the Honor Guard's technical adviser and subject-matter expert to produce "Seven Person Military Funeral Honors," a video that demonstrates, step-by-step, the new procedures, for distribution to base honor guards worldwide. Adding more luster to this accomplishment, the video won the "Air Force's Best Training Video" competition, rising to the top of a field of 44 entries for the period of January 1, 2006 to 31 December 2007.
"I made sure that all aspects of the video were completed and correct and represented to the Air Force what was needed to ensure standardization of the sequence was as simply as process as possible," said Sergeant Forrest, who co-wrote the video's script with Staff Sgt. David Little. "Many hours went into the creation of this video from performance, editing and finalized product."
The training flight now await the results of the Department of Defense Visual Information Production Award Competition, where "Seven Person Military Funeral Honors," is being judged against the other service branches' top video productions.
Sergeant Forrest and Senior Airman Peadar Clark, 23, of Hampton, Va., an Honor Guard formal training instructor, delivered a 15-minute briefing Sept. 15 to the panel of four
generals and one senior executive service member for the team excellence awards at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington. The Honor Guard team was one of 20 finalists from major commands and direct reporting units across the Air Force selected to demonstrate their projects to the judges, and they learned of their selection as winners the following day.
"To see our presentation go off the way it did and get the response it did from the judges, I just don't have the words," said Tech. Sgt. Jason Estrada, 31, of Alamogordo, N.M., who felt an "immediate, overwhelming, tremendous feeling of pride" upon learning of his team's selection for the award. Sergeant Estrada, NCOIC of the base honor guard training program, wrote the briefing to the panel in collaboration with Senior Airman Joshua Malyemezian, of Spring Texas, an Honor Guard formal training instructor.
"I watched Sergeant Forrest develop this whole sequence," said Airman Clark. "To be part of everything and watch how he did that was amazing in itself, and then to actually have an opportunity to win this award was fantastic."
Their "ingenious plan cut more man hours, saved more money and returned more Airmen to war fighting roles than ever expected," wrote Senior Master Sgt. Jake Pullin, then superintendent of the formal training flight, in the training flight's award nomination package. As a result of the training flight's innovative, groundbreaking initiative, "BHGs (base honor guards) of the future will be able to adapt to these manning constraints to ensure Military Funeral Honors are properly rendered to those who have proudly served our great nation and help the Air Force meet this congressionally-mandated mission, he wrote. " This remarkable plan will reduce the need for over 750 Airmen positions to serve on BHG teams Air Force-wide, representing a shift of more than $20 million in salary that will enable more Airmen to directly support the war on terror."
Sergeant Pullin added that the "plan came to fruition due to hard work, diligent efforts, and ingenuity. In 2007, wing commanders throughout the Air Force collectively spent $3,427,500 ... to support the BHG program. Cutting this expenditure by 30 percent means a projected savings of $1,028,250. .... This remarkable plan will reduce the need for over 750 Airman positions to serve on BHG teams AF wide."
Between Oct. 1, 2007 and Sept. 1, 2008, U.S. Air Force Honor Guard three-man mobile training teams conducted more than 1,240 hours of hands-on training across the globe, involving 138 bases and creating 643 new base honor guard members fully qualified to conduct the new funeral sequence for Air Force retirees.
"I applaud these teams for seeking new solutions and innovative processes that conserve our valuable resources - money, time and potentially even lives," said Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff. "We should always examine our processes by asking the question, 'Why do we do what we do the way we do it?' You have been successful in not only asking that question, but also in answering it and for that I commend you."