Guardians of Tradition: Inside the 377th Air Base Wing Kirtland Air Force Base Honor Guard

  • Published
  • By Allen Winston
  • 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
In the heart of Kirtland Air Force Base, a distinguished group of servicemen and servicewomen stand ready to honor, preserve, and embody the values of the United States Air Force. The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard at Kirtland is more than a ceremonial unit; it is a symbol of pride, precision, discipline and unwavering commitment to duty. 
The mission of the Kirtland Honor Guard is to provide dignified funeral honors upon request to all honorably discharged veterans within our area of responsibility. Additionally, the Honor Guard is responsible for supporting many other special events such as memorials, military retirements, change of commands, award banquets and various civic events.
The Honor Guard service members, known as “ceremonial guardsmen,” are individuals of good reputation having integrity, ethical conduct and exhibiting standards that merit respect. They are responsible for protecting and overseeing the maintenance of standards on and off duty. It is truly an occupation that requires outstanding devotion and commitment to duty. In keeping with traditions and maintaining exceptionally high standards, the honor guard will continue to remain an icon of excellence as we delve into the intricacies of their daily routines, precision drills and the profound significance of their role, we uncover the essence of the Honor Guard's crucial contribution to the heritage and legacy of the U.S. Air Force. 
The Kirtland Air Force Base Honor Guard's creed includes the following statements: 
  • "Hand-picked to serve as a member of the Kirtland Air Force Base Honor Guard" 
  • "My standards of conduct and level of professionalism must be above reproach for I represent all other in my service." 
  • "Others earned the right for me to wear the ceremonial uniform, one that is honored in a rich tradition and history." 
  • "I will honor their memory by wearing it properly and proudly" 
  • “Never will I allow my performance to be dictated by the type of ceremony, severity of the temperature or size of the crowd.”  
  • “I will remain superbly conditioned to perfect all movement throughout every drill and ceremony.” 
  • "Representing every member, past and present, of the United States Air Force, I vow to stand sharp, crisp, and motionless, for I am a Ceremonial Guardsman." 
The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard is a selectively staffed unit with more than 300 ceremonial guardsmen and support personnel. It is made up of four ceremonial flights, each with the primary color guard, body bearers, firing party and parade flight qualifications. The Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team is the traveling performance and exhibition unit. 
Each qualification team performs a specific function at ceremonies and funerals. The color team displays and guards the United States flag, Air Force flag and flags representing the many offices of visiting dignitaries, as well as every country's flag. The body bearers escort and carry flag-draped remains to burial sites and fold the flag for presentation to a family member. The three-volley salute is executed by the firing party element with seven-man teams firing in unison. The parade flight marches in official ceremonies, from funeral processions to Presidential Inaugurations.
Honor Guard History at Kirtland Air Force Base 
Although the Honor Guard traces its beginning to May 1948 when the newly formed Air Force headquarters were instructed to develop plans for an elite ceremonial unit comparable to those of the other armed services, it was not until Jan. 1, 1972, that the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard became a separate unit. 
The original 1948 unit was activated within the 1100th Air Police Squadron in Sept. 1948 with an authorized strength of 98 enlisted and two officers before it was disbanded for insufficient personnel.  
Like the base it serves, the Kirtland Honor Guard has a very long historical legacy boasting more than 60 years of service. Kirtland Air Force Base was built in 1941, originally as Albuquerque Army Air Base, and then the following year it was renamed Kirtland Field. While there were U.S. Army honor guards on the base prior to 1947, the Air Force did not establish an honor guard program until 1948. The origins of Kirtland’s present-day honor guard likely date to the 1950s and would have included military members from across the many units on the base, not just the host wing—as it drew from volunteers willing to take it on as an additional duty. 
Figure 1: This is a photo of a newspaper article titled "Kirtland honor Guard: Putting its Best Foot Forward" at Kirtland Air Force Base in 1973. This article is a testament to the Kirtland Honor Guards long standing dedication and history. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo.)
Figure 2: This is a photo of a newspaper article titled "Center Dedicated at Colorful Ceremony" at Kirtland Air Force Base, March 26, 1976. This article is a testament to the Kirtland Honor Guards long standing dedication and history. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo.)
As of the early 1970’s the Kirtland Air Force Base 377th Force Support Squadron dedicated Base ceremonial Honor Guard program with service members. 
The Kirtland Honor Guard performed military honors at 346 funeral services, and 157 Color Guard Events totaling 513 events in the year 2023, including the 377th Air Base Wing Change of Command, Wing, Group and Members Awards ceremonies, and most importantly, local veteran funeral/memorial services.  
The members of the Kirtland Honor Guard are handpicked to serve and only thirty members are chosen each year. Each flight is made up of 16-19 Airmen who serve a tour of 6 and a half months. One reason for their involvement is that the Honor Guard sets the highest standard to promote the core values of honor, duty, integrity, and professionalism. 
Figure 3: Col. Michael Power, 377th Air Base Wing commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Cooper, 377 ABW command chief, visit the 377 ABW Honor Guard class during a training day at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., March 4, 2024. Visits like this allow the command team to engage directly with Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Wolfram Stumpf.)
Potential members who volunteer must first vet through their leadership letting them know they are interested and deserve the privilege to serve as a member of the Base Honor Guard. Once selected, each member must go through a rigorous two-week training program. According to Tech. Sgt. Marcus Walker, 377th FSS Honor Guard program manager, the intense training program assesses the resilience and stamina of the potential members and helps to separate the field, allowing those who feel called to serve in the honor guard to prove their worth.  During training, members can spend up to eight hours per day in training.  
Training includes ceremonial procedures like weapon handling, charging the rifle repeatedly until their hands get raw, flag handling and folding and cadence. Members must build up resilience to stand at attention in the same position for hours. During this time, the Honor Guard members must learn to stand strong and fast to their code and not show emotions. Each of the honor guard members are reminded that they are there for the families of the service member. Many Airmen who go through the two weeks of training find out more about themselves and what it takes to be an Honor Guard member. 
Staff Sgt. Brian Craner, 377th Weapons System Security Squadron Airman, believes that many of the members of the Kirtland Honor Guard gain a larger sense of pride and purpose, leadership and problem-solving skills. The mantra in the Honor Guard is “Strive for perfection, settle for excellence.”   
 "The honor guard will make you better as an Airman or an individual,” Craner said. “It is a great way to learn what you don’t know. While most events go exactly according to plan, there are many things that could wrong during a ceremony. It is up to the honor guard Airmen to see things from a different perspective, and instead of pointing out problems, find the solution.”  
Honoring the Fallen  
The folding, presentation and handoff of the American flag is the final recognition of the member’s service to this country. Craner describes one of the most intimate moments of an Honor Guard service.  
“In that moment you are essentially locked with the next of kin, usually the spouse or the immediate child, and that’s usually the only time you will hear a guardsman speak other than calling commands,” said Craner. 
Words are spoken in a voice only the family member can hear, in that moment great respect and honor are passed on.  
One of the most sacred parts of the honor guard's performance is the flag-folding ceremony. There are thirteen folds during the ceremony. Here is a list of what each fold stands for: 
  1. Life 
  1. Belief in eternal life 
  1.  Honor and remembrance of veterans 
  1. Citizens’ Trust in God 
  1. Tribute to the United States 
  1. Pledge of Allegiance  
  1. Tribute to the Armed Forces 
  1. Tribute to those that have died 
  1. Honor of Womanhood 
  1. Tribute to Fathers 
  1. Represents the Seal of King David and King Solomon 
  1. The emblem of eternity 
  1. In God We Trust 
While serving at a funeral service, the Honor Guard members must stand strong and fast to their code and not show emotion. Each of the honor guard members are reminded that they are there for the families of the service member.  
The honors a service member receives at their funeral depends on the veteran’s service, but will always have certain baseline elements, which include at least two honor guard members and can expand up to a 20 member plus one Chaplain with full military honors of an active-duty service member.  
By law, military units are required to provide, at a minimum, a two-person uniformed detail to present the core elements of a funeral honors ceremony. This includes the playing of Taps and the folding and presentation of the U.S. flag. A uniformed representative from the veteran’s service will present the flag. 
Playing of Taps was first arranged to signal evening roll calls in 1862. It was officially made mandatory for military funerals in 1891 and named the “National Song of the Remembrance” in 2012. The ceremonial horn performance is the final farewell to those that served. Taps The Bugler's Cry-The Origin of Sounding Taps  
Taps performed in Arlington National Cemetery (summer and winter)  
The Three-rifle volley symbolizes duty, honor, and sacrifice.  In the United States, the three-rifle volley is part of the Honor Guard drill and ceremony. It consists of a rifle party firing blank cartridges into the air three times. The rifle party usually has an odd number of members, from three to seven. The three-rifle volley is often mistaken by the laymen as a 21-gun salute. A 21-gun salute uses a battery or artillery pieces instead of rifles and is reserved for heads of state, like the president or a former president.  
Military flyovers are not part of the mandated funeral honors ceremony required by Title 10, Section 1491 United States Code, but can be arranged if supporting personnel and aircraft are available. It should be noted that requests for a military flyover are just requests. Approval must go through an administrative process within each military service. Approval is based on many factors, including the eligibility of the deceased, the availability of personnel and aircraft, the location of the funeral service, the time and date of the funeral and weather conditions. 
Figure 4: The 377th Air Base Wing Honor Guard performs services at the Santa Fe National Cemetary for retired Brig. Gen. Joseph Callahan on Feb. 5, 2024. The 58th Special operations wing provided an aircraft flyover for the service. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Allen Winston.)
The 377 ABW Honor Guard at Kirtland Air Force Base sets the highest standard to promote the core values of honor, duty, integrity, and professionalism: sharp, crisp and motionless. The focus of the Kirtland Honor Guard is to deliver premier ceremonial honors, inspire the nation and represent all Airmen and Guardians to the world. They are a preeminent ceremonial unit, honoring our heritage and embodying personal and professional excellence. 
Families of eligible veterans request funeral honors through their funeral director. The funeral director will contact the appropriate military service to arrange for the funeral honors detail. The funeral director will also assist with receiving other federal and state burial benefits.  
(To request services, call 505-846-1804 during regular business hours, or you may also contact the Honor Guard manager by cell phone at 505-238-6648. All funeral requests require the deceased member's DD 214.) 
(The preferred method for verifying funeral honors eligibility is the DD 214. If the DD Form 214 is not available, any discharge document showing other than dishonorable service can be used. The DD 214 can be obtained by requesting it online from the National Archives.)
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