An honor guard’s final thanks

Nearly every day is Memorial Day for the men and women who serve on the Funeral Honor Guard at Naval Station Everett.

In groups of two to six, the honor guard attends funeral and memorial services for veterans and active-duty service members at the request of family. The ceremony, which varies depending on the veteran or service member being honored, typically includes the honor guard’s presence, the playing of taps and the folding of the U.S. flag and its presentation to a family member.

The members of Naval Station Everett’s honor guard volunteer for the service but are vetted by superiors for the duty.

“There are not many things that I’ll do in life that will be as memorable or mean as much for people,” said Master at Arms, 1st Class Gordon Berry. “I feel honored and grateful to be able to do this.”

Berry, originally from Olympia, joined the Marine Corps in 1996 and later joined the Navy in 2005. He’s been part of the Funeral Honor Guard for a few months. Having visited Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, Berry said he wanted to participate in something similar as part of his service, a duty that honors those who have served.

It’s a duty that demands composure, he said.

“It’s emotional, but it’s something that in the solemn moment you can’t lose your bearing, you’re counted on to do your job. If you can’t compose yourself and present yourself in a professional manner, then you shouldn’t be presenting. You don’t get emotional; you can’t let the family see it.”

Master at Arms, 2nd Class Benjamin Spence has been in the Navy for eight years and deployed with the Army in the Middle East in 2009. Like Berry, he’s been a member of the honor guard for just a few months.

Spence sees his participation as representing the Navy and the military and offering the veteran or service member a final recognition.

“For most of these folks, this is their last contact with the military, and for those families who may not have other loved ones in the military, their only contact with the military,” Spence said. “I enjoy being able to have the families see their loved ones honored.”

Senior Chief Nate Butts, who leads the honor guard, agrees with Spence.

“You can see it in the family’s faces, that this was an important part of their loved one’s life. That final send off from the military is a capstone to their career, to the entire life, that they served their country honorably, and in that hour this is a final piece of recognition from the Navy and from their country.”

Butts, of Scappoose, Oregon, served on the Everett-based USS Ingraham prior to its decommissioning last year. In finding a new shore duty, Butts sought out the honor guard as a rewarding opportunity.

Along with composure, the honor guard requires attention to detail, Butts said.

Typically, the honor guard is responsible for the flag’s presentation at the service, either draped over the casket or folded and set next to the urn. Taps are played, and often an electronic bugle is played. The flag is then folded and presented to the family.

“We take pride in a perfectly folded flag,” Butts said. “We want to make sure the flag we present to the family never has to be folded again, so we make sure its folded perfect every time.”

Many services are for veterans who fought in World War II, as members of that Greatest Generation pass on. But increasingly the services are for those who fought in Korea and Vietnam, and now also in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The honor guard members are present to hear the stories told again, to see the photos, either black and white or faded color shots.

The teams travel mostly within Western Washington, working with other such honor guards based at Naval Base Kitsap’s Bremerton and Bangor stations, but Butts and another sailor have traveled as far as North Dakota for a service.

Butts also has carried out the duty of informing family of a death, including the notification of a mother in Everett whose son had taken his own life.

Airman Trevor Mascarenas, of Stanwood, says the honor guard is the greatest thing he’s ever done in the Navy.

At the end of a service, there often is an opportunity for family members to talk with members of the honor guard. What Mascarenas said is heard from family members is appreciation for their presence, gratitude returned for representing the thanks of the military and the nation.

“What we hear most often is that if their loved one had been there, they would have loved that, he or she would have thanked you,” he said.

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