Friday, February 09, 2007

Day FIVE...Why I'm stressed out...

Several folks have made good-natured wisecracks at me in reply to my blogs, and they've received VERY nasty responses from me.

I apologize.

I know you guys only tease out of love.

While I cannot EXCUSE my conduct, allow me, please, to EXPLAIN my conduct.

Let me begin first with these words...known as "The Sentinel's Creed":

My dedication to this sacred duty
Is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me
Never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance
My standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise
And the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence
To the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect,
His bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day,
Alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
This soldier will in honored glory rest
Under my eternal vigilance.

These words are the words we live by in Funeral Honors. While, yes, this is the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the words and the sentiment applies to all soldiers of Military Funeral Honors. I refer everyone to line six...

"My standard will remain perfection."

This is not a combat duty. There are no allowances. There is no room for error. There is no such thing as "close enough".

I may have performed close to 100 funerals since October, but every time I'm out there, with every fold of the flag, or every trigger pull, or every step I take with the casket, I remind myself that it might be my 100th funeral, but for the deceased and the family of the deceased, this is a one-time occurrence. Those who have served deserve no less than perfection.

This is the most important job I've ever had, and it means more to me than almost anything else in the world. I WILL maintain the standard.

So...yeah...I come back to my room at night and I'm unwinding and stressed out from training over and over and over all day, and I read some trite little comment from my friends, and I feel as if the weight of my mission...of my SWORN being belittled. I should know better, but when you're immersed in it, it's not so easy to come down from that, and I snark off at you.

I'm sorry.

I am one of the Silent Sentinels. It is my solemn honor...nay, my PRIVELEGE to escort those fallen warriors to the gates of their Valhalla. It is my job to provide comfort to the grieving family in the form of pride and dignity. And if it kills me, I will make sure that every corner I fold is crisp...that every casket I carry remains level and even...and that every volley I fire is in perfect synch.

My standard will remain perfection.

That's why, when members of the Old Guard salute an officer, our salutation is "Line Six, Sir!"

That's why I'm stressed...because I never cared this much before.

Bear with me.

"Line Six"

Day FIVE..."Couldn't stand the Weather!"

Frozen and nasty this morning. Managed to sneak into the gym again today for PT. No organized sports, though. We hit the weights and cardio machines. I did some free weight exercises I thought up exclusively for funeral details. Take a 50-lb dumbbell and hold it in either hand with your hand by your side as if you are at attention. Then, lift the dumbbell to waist height and hold it before lowering it down. Do 20 reps then switch hands. Keep doing this back and forth for as long as you like.

Another exercise I came up with, hold a pair of dumbbells in your hands, and hold your hands out in front of you just below your waist height. Do NOT bend your back or knees. This is to simulate having to hold a casket in front of you while you side-step it over the grave. Then raise the dumbbell to shoulder height and lower it down. Do as many reps as you can.

After screwing around with this, I did 10 minutes on the stairmaster and 10 minutes on the strider.

I'm not sore in the mornings quite so much anymore.


So...on Tuesday, we spent all day learning the casket sequence.

Wednesday, we learned the six-man flag fold.

Today, we put it all together.


and over...

and OVER!


My arms ache, my shoulders ache, my hands are cramped from holding the flag in a death grip...

Oh yeah...we also learned how to deal with 'surprise' conditions, like obstacles in your route, carrying the coffin from the hearse to the grave site. Yeah. Know what we do? Raise the coffin UP, over the we walked all around the interior of the gym with the coffin at shoulder height. no no...NOT actually ON our shoulder HEIGHT.



I hurt.



It's 21 degrees out this morning. We had a winter weather advisory for this morning, so we pre-arranged to do PT inside the gym this morning, and our instructors made sure the OCS dickheads didn't knock us out of our slot.

Don't fuck with the Old Guard, I tell ya.

So...we're in the gym and we were given a choice of sports to play, and almost everyone agreed on Dodgeball. A few went over and shot some hoops, but none of the rest of us wanted to mess with anything that required that much skill, so Dodgeball it was.

I tell ya...I wonder if I want to pursue promotion and higher levels of leadership after all, because it would appear that once you reach a certain rank, your sense of humor gets revoked.

We have a Sergeant Major and a Master Sergeant in our class, both female, and neither one of them have a sense of humor worth a damn. On top of that, every morning in class, we have to halt what we're doing while the SGM rattles off some impossibly long war-story...not one that even really has a point except to illustrate EXACTLY WHAT THE INSTRUCTOR JUST SAID!!!! You know? They're not FUNNY...not poignant...just one of those, " this one time..." situations.

But today we're playing dodgeball, and the balls we're using aren't the foam balls...they're the rubber, multi-purpose balls like you remember from gym class growing up. Thrown hard enough, these balls can really sting, so we made a rule..."NO HEAD SHOTS". Now...of course, accidents can happen. A couple of different times, the Master Sergeant got hit somewhere between her elbows and her shoulders...and let's be fair...she's SHORT...but she'd start yelling at the person who threw the ball. Hell...this woman went down to the floor a couple of times to dodge...hit the floor in a ball, and STILL complained about head shots. How the hell are we going to hit anything else when you're in a ball on the floor facing us?

Oh well...I only have to tolerate her crap for about another week and then I'm home.

After, of course, a night in Memphis.

Day THREE...Guess who's coming to lunch?

So...I had lunch with someone today I totally did NOT expect to run in to. CSM Gattis, the state Command Sergeant Major.

(For civilian types, that means he is the highest ranking Sergeant in the State of NC. You don't just work your way up to it, you have to be appointed by the governor. It's a leadership position on the STATE level. The only person he answers to is the Adjudant General, who is the top commander for North Carolina)

Turns out there's a conference at the PEC, and there are state CSMs and high-ranking officers from all over the country hanging out here. CSM Gattis recognized me from when he was a 1st Sergeant and later the CSM of my old aviation battalion. We chatted briefly, and he mentioned that he'd come by later in the day to observe our training.

Today was the six-man flag fold. Imagine six people coordinating their movements with nothing more than a twitch of the wrist or signifigant glances to signal one another. There's not much I can say about it except it's extremely challenging. We only ever got up to the point that we could go through the procedure without 'stops' ONE TIME before the day was over. took two hours to walk us through the procedure the first time. The other two teams didn't even manage to get everyone through!!

While the CSM was observing, I was given the opportunity to speak with him some more about the program in NC and express how dedicated so many members of our team are to the passionate we are about what we do...and he was genuinely impressed. While we stood apart from everyone talking about Funeral Honors, and CSM Gattis asked me about my personal feelings about the program. He said he could see I was a much different soldier than the guy I used to be in the Aviation unit and how he knew CSM Jackson would not have let me into the program, much less sent me to school unless I had showed the potential to be a leader. When he shook my hand, he presented me with one of his Coins.

Now...again, for those of you who aren't military, let me explain what a Coin is. A Coin is a medallion with some sort of distincive identification on it for a specific military unit or in some cases, individuals. In most cases, these things are custom ordered and only high-ranking officials have access to them. I've only ever recieved one other coin in my career, and that was from the 10th Mountain Division, for serving with them in Afghanistan. I also was able to acquire a 1st Cavalry Division coin, but that was not for me...the commanding general of the 1st Cav gave me a coin to present to Dorian Britt, the Cadet First Sergeant of the Imani Leadership Academy the year I was deployed, as a reward for being Valedectorian and Class President.

So...yeah. To get the State Sergeant Major's PERSONAL Coin is kind of a big deal.

I'm really loving this job.

Day THREE...One mile, no sweat...

Two miles...better yet!!!

Okay, not really, but I did two solid miles this morning with noticeably less trouble than I've done in the past. The semi-frequent workout sessions with Justin and Wes are really paying off. This morning it was all the way up to 43 degrees, which is downright balmy compared to yesterday and monday.

Our class leader is a Warrant Officer who seems to be a bit unsure of himself. I've been trying to be supportive of him in that respect...but, hey...he IS a damn warrant.


(Never salute a warrant officer. It just confuses them.)

Day TWO...A riddle for you all...

Question: How long can the honor guard carry a coffin full of weights?

Answer: All damn day, if we have to.

Today was the first day of hands-on instruction, and we learned the 6-man casket detail. I tell ya...for those of you who don't know, the level of precision involved in doing military funeral honors is extremely high. It's difficult enough to get six soldiers to execute a facing movement at the exact same time. Now, imagine those six soldiers are holding a solid oak coffin, full of weight, and when they all turn, they have to release their outside hand and hold it in a very precise position so they are all identical.

Now they have to continue to STAND there while the instructors inspect and evaluate each one of us before we can proceed to the next step, which is coordinating our movement to turn the coffin EXACTLY 90 degrees using only 5 side-steps...this is still only holding with one hand.

NOW add the factor that ONE member of our team is 6'4", and one member of our team is 5'0", AND we are required to keep the coffin LEVEL.

Now...start doing that at 09:00, stop at noon for lunch, pick back up at 13:00 and stop again at 16:30.


Thank heavens I've done as many funerals as I have. When it became my turn to work the 'honcho' position...that's the guy who calls all the commands for the casket team, I recieved some serious praise on my performance. Granted, other members of my team recieved praise as well...but I'm not worried about THEIR grades...just mine.

I'm getting to know a couple of other members of my team. During lunch I sat with SGT Patera. I found her interesting because she's an MP in Nevada National Guard who had been to Iraq, and in her civilian world, she used to work security for one of the major casinos in Las Vegas. She gave it up to do Military Funeral Honors, cutting her pay in half. Turns out she does it for the same reason I's closure. Like me, she lost friends over there...friends she made in different units...and never really got to say goodbye.

I think it might be time for me to let go of working with kids...maybe not, but maybe so.

What I do is important...whether it's a 19-year-old KIA from Afghanistan or Iraq, or a 90-year-old man who never saw action, but who SERVED.

That's what it's all about, really. WE SERVE. Whether it's for 2 years or 40, we devote every day of our lives to being prepared to travel anywhere in the world, leave our families and friends behind, and give our lives if we have to.

Yeah, this might be the most important thing I've ever done.

Morning 2...I hate officers

I hate officers...

Morning...Day 2...

We were supposed to go to the gym to work out this morning...organized sports on Tuesday and Thursday...and when we got there we discovered that we'd been 'bumped' by an O.C.S. class (Officer Candidate School).

Fucking officers. They're not even actual OFFICERS yet, and they're already throwing their weight around. Amidst the groaning and moaning, I did point out that the Funeral Honor Guard works OUTSIDE in ALL CONDITIONS, and while it was wrong of the O.C.S. guys to muscle in on our gym time, we should not be averse to training outside.

Sooooooooo...we went outside for PT...and played ultimate 30-degree weather. I managed to completely turn my right ankle and almost turn my left because there were some holes in the field we were playing on.

Everyone was well-motivated and enjoying themselves...nobody took it too seriously...and at one point I intercepted a long pass. When I turned around, the smallest female in the class was coming at me wide open, and she couldn't stop fast enough.

Now...this soldier is about 5-foot-nothin'...a hundred and nothin'. In a nanosecond, I realized if she hit me, she'd bounce right off and possibly hurt herself. So, instead, I made this exaggerated 'whoa!!!'...let her impact, and we both went right over, ass-over-teakettle. In a display of athletic prowess that I have never before posessed and will never EVER be able to duplicate, I still managed to get the frisbee out of my hands and down the field before I impacted. However, my dedication to physical comedy got the better of me and I managed to screw up my shoulder a little bit.


I shouldn't feel this old...I'm only 35.

Day one with the Old Guard

First day with the Old Guard...

Ah...the 3rd US Infantry...The Old Guard...

These guys DEFINE "soldier". Talk all you want about Airborne, Rangers, all those guys... talk all you want. Yeah, they're all tough...but it takes a SPECIAL kind of soldier to maintain all the toughness of the Airborne, the Rangers, and still maintain the personal discipline required to execute something like Military Funeral Honors with pinpoint precision. That's the Old Guard.

That's who is training me for the next two weeks. These guys don't play.

A TINY bit of the classic Chris Jones class clown came out this morning after Physical Training (heretofore referred to as "PT"). One of our instructors had to address the class rather tersely in regards to the fact that several of them didn't run the entire second mile. After stressing that this was a military course and that we were here to learn the highest and most stringent of military standards, I piped up with, "You gotta be in good shape when you're carrying a coffin full of 'fat boy'."

As soon as I realized I'd said it out loud, I regretted it. "This is not the place for 'that guy'," I thought to myself, "this is where you're supposed to be SGT Jones, the old-school Drill Sergeant-type."

Fortunately, everyone laughed at what I said, and the instructor chuckled and said, "You're absolutely right, Sarge. This job takes more stamina than any other job!"

**Whew** So...the clown poked his stupid noggin out for just a second and didn't manage to completely invalidate or discredit me. I vowed to myself to have better control.

--At this point, my intrepid readers, I must insist that those of you who take personal delight in tearing me down on a regular basis for my choice to be talkative, or 'out there', or 'on', most of the time...just keep your snotty little comments to yourself. If you've not been paying attention lately, it's been quite some time since I was like that and I finally got sick and tired of wisecracks to the contrary this last RenFaire season. Comments to that effect from ANYBODY will result in a big 'fuck you and fuck off' from me, and then me ignoring you for pretty much the rest of time.--

So...into the classroom we went, after breakfast. Most of the morning was spent in one briefing after another. We had the obligatory "Welcome to PEC, here's what you can and can't do." briefing, then we sat through a mind-numbing hour of information on all the vast education benefits provided by the National Guard. Now...I am delighted that the National Guard provides so well for soldiers seeking an education...but most of that hour, I sat there wondering, "What the HELL does this have to do with Military Funeral Honors?" Nothing...I know. I know that this was an hour of instruction that EVERY class at PEC receives while there, but I felt like valuable time was being wasted on something that MY STATE should be doing.

After that, we sat through 75 minutes of discussion with two therapists on Stress Management. Turns out that doing funerals every day is a very stressful job. During this little session, I discovered that I'd done more funerals than pretty much anyone else in the room, what with having done 1 or more, on the average of 5 days a week since mid-September. I listened to other folks talk about how the most stress they dealt with was finding people to do the funerals that were requested...stuff like that. I countered with, "You know what stresses me out? When I'm about to present the flag to the son or grandson of a deceased WWII hero, and the little THUG hasn't even bothered to dress he's sitting there in his oversized jeans that hang down to his ass, his basketball jersey and his fucking baseball hat all tilted to the side, and the PUNK doesn't even bother to SIT UP STRAIGHT as I present his folded flag to him! STRESS is what happens when I choke down the impulse to kick his chair out from under him, send his punk-ass flying ass-over-teakettle and call him a disgrace to his grandfather's memory."

Everyone just sat quietly for a moment before the therapist said something like, "Yes...I can see where that might be stressful."

Afterwards, during lunch, several of us sat together swapping stories like that.

After lunch, we finally got into what we came here to do. We learned a bit of history in regards to Miltary Funeral Honors, and the began training. The hardest part for most folks is going to be un-learning most of the TRADITIONAL drill movements that the Army taught them so they can learn the very different drill movements used for Funeral ceremony.

All in all, however, a smile played around my face all day, just barely, because I am truly in awe of my instructors...these guys...GENUINE "Old Guard" soldiers...Silent Sentinels, guarding the gates of Valhalla.

This school is going to be one of the toughest I've ever done.

Day ONE...morning.

Day One...Morning...

(Sung to the familiar runnning cadence tune)...

Up in the morning at a quarter-to-six...

Yeah...well...nothing polite rhymes with six, so we'll stop there.

19 degrees outside.



Ran a mile, then 50 push-ups, 50 sit-ups, then another mile. I thought _I_ was out of shape! Several folks didn't even bother to RUN the second mile. *sigh*

This looks like it's going to be fun. I haven't brought out my 'class clown' face yet, and I don't think I will. This school means too much to me.

Talk to you guys tonight.

My newest job, my newest passion, my newest blog.

There are several days worth of blogs to catch up on. Make sure you read them in order...

In late September I began a new job. Those of you who have read my blogs know that Imani Institute was betrayed by folks we trusted, and we lost our charter.

Because I am not a certified teacher, and because we didn't get the word until two weeks before the start of the school year, I was not able to be picked up by another school.

After chilling for a week or two and "regrouping", I was putting the word out amongst friends in the National Guard to see if there were any 'active duty special work' openings. Those can be a genuinely SWEET deal. I was approached by SFC Gradus from my National Guard unit to give the Honor Guard a try.

Several years ago, Congress decided that military funeral honors would be made available to ALL VETERANS, provided they were honorably discharged of course. No longer did it have to be some retired high-ranker, or someone Killed In Action. We now honor ALL WHO SERVED. The National Guard was tasked with making this happen.

Well...rather than having a million different Guard units out there doing funerals a million different ways, the Guard decided that each state would have a MFH (Military Funeral Honors) coordinator and central office, and that ALL states would follow the same Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for conducting funerals. To this end, an SOP was written and a school created at the National Guard Professional Education Center at Camp Robinson in Little Rock, AR. Writing the SOP and teaching the course are none other than soldiers from the 3rd US Infantry, "The Old Guard". For those of you who don't know...these are the guys who work at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C., and who set the HIGHEST standard for MFH. States send a few soldiers to the school each year and those soldiers are expected to come back and train the rest. These slots are very coveted.

Well...I've been doing funerals since mid-September and I work at LEAST five days a week on average, and this duty consumes me.

Recently, I earned one of the coveted slots at the school, and I am currently in Little Rock working my ass off.

This is NOT the old Chris Jones. There have been changes. This SGT Jones cares about being a soldier, he cares about being an NCO, and he cares about his current mission, the highest of honors.

These are his chronicles.