Lasting impression: Air Force’s busiest honor guard calls Wright-Patterson home

‘The best of the best’ are expected to represent the Air Force to families.

More than a decade ago, Joshua Lane was a young non-commissioned officer with no interest in serving in an Air Force honor guard.

An assignment at a military funeral in Arizona changed his life.

Then in his mid-20s, Lane found himself handing a U.S. flag to an orphaned child at his parents’ military funeral. Both of the 10-year-old child’s parents had been lost in the line of duty while serving in Afghanistan.

“It clicked,” Lane recalled of that moment. “This is why I do this. This is why this is so important. This is not only closure for a chapter of a military member’s life, but also for their family.”

That experience led Lane to where he is today, the NCO in charge of the Air Force’s busiest and most wide-ranging honor guard at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

A member of a military honor guard unit may be the first — and final — uniformed military member a civilian may encounter.

They leave lasting impressions.

“I’ve been face to face with a crying widow,” Lane said. “And it’s my job to be strong.”

An honor guard or ceremonial guardsmen performs ceremonial duties at military funerals, retirement ceremonies, community events, even sporting events.

They represent the military to civilians who may be enjoying a July 4th parade — or experiencing the most painful moments of their lives.

“The honor guard is to ensure that we receive the best of the best that you have to offer so that in turn we give these families the best of the best,” Lane said he sometimes tells Air Force first sergeants when he tries to secure volunteers for his unit.

Staff Sgt. Rodney Petrie, a member of the Wright-Patterson unit, said it can be challenging bringing new members up to speed on just what it is an honor guard does and why that matters.

“Whenever they actually go out in the field and perform a ceremony, it’s kind of like on-the-job training — it all comes together,” Petrie said. “You see the impact it has on the family. That brings it all together for them. They all get locked in.”

The Wright-Patterson honor guard unit ended 2021 with more than a million miles traveled, a new milestone in the Air Force, having served some 4,300 funerals and more than 160 color postings.

When the family of famed Air Force test pilot Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager planned his “celebration of life” service in early 2021, they specifically requested the Wright-Patterson honor guard.

Air Force’s busiest honor guard

An individual guardsmen from Wright-Patt will cover 85 to 100 ceremonies, traveling about 35,000 to 40,000 miles in a six-month tour, Lane said.

On a typical day, the base honor guard will be responsible for 10 or more ceremonies; a normal week will see 50 to 60 ceremonies, but in the past two quarters, that weekly allotment of ceremonies has sometimes reached 111, Lane said.

This unit’s service area covers 210,000 square miles, all or parts of Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana, West Virginia and two counties in Pennsylvania. Of 74 Air Force honor guard units, the Wright-Patterson cadre covers the largest area.

It takes 33 active-duty members and six National Guard and Reserve members to cover that wide expanse. The unit solicits uniformed volunteers on the active-duty side from 17 Wright-Patterson organizations. Volunteers, supported by a staff of 10 full-time staff members, serve six months.

Before they perform, they undergo more than 50 hours of training, mastering some 125 tasks.

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

“This is a very high-performance job,” Lane said. “Very high-viz (visibility) as well. So we do make sure our individuals are well versed in their craft and to hone that craft.”

“We spend a lot of time training,” he added. “That is our bread and butter.”

And if they don’t have enough volunteers?

Thankfully, regional Guard and Reserve members augment the unit, Lane said. But there are times when some members are, as Lane put it, “volun-told” to volunteer. And full-time staff members will step in when necessary.

“The Honor Guard is a ‘no-fail’ mission, especially at Wright-Patterson,” Lane said.

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