Honor Guard Soldiers make seemingly impossible mission requirements reality

Honor Guard Soldiers make seemingly impossible mission requirements reality
Nevada Army Guard Spc. Hector Espino, left, and Sgt. Joseph Santacruz salute during military funeral honors for unaccompanied Veterans (those without known kin) at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City, Nevada, in March. The small team of just six full-time Nevada Army Guard Honor Guard Soldiers is set to support more than 1000 missions across the Silver State this year. Photo by Spc. Adrianne Lopez, 17th Sustainment Brigade

Submitted by Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka, Nevada Army Guard

RENO – Mission: Impossible.

The title of the 1960s television series on covert operations and the Tom Cruise-franchise of action-spy films could also succinctly describe the seemingly impossible task the small number of Nevada Army Guard Honor Guard Soldiers face this year. With just six full-time Soldiers (and one full-time civilian administrator), the Honor Guard anticipates supporting 1,150 missions in 2022.

As improbable as the upcoming total sounds, it’s entirely conceivable after the squad supported a record 1,013 missions last year. That total surpassed the 2019 record of 911 missions and was a 27.5% increase from 2020’s tally of 729 missions.

Most Honor Guard missions entail military funeral honors for either deceased active servicemembers or military Veterans. The vast majority of missions for the Nevada team involve U.S. Army Veterans. By law, all military Veterans released from duty in any status other than dishonorable are eligible to receive basic military funeral honors; a basic military funeral honors detail includes two servicemembers (one of whom must be a member of the deceased’s parent service of the armed forces) who play “Taps,” fold the U.S. Flag and present the flag to the deceased’s next of kin.

Full military honors are reserved for certain ranks, those killed by their injuries in combat, and Medal of Honor recipients. Full military honors require 7-9 personnel to act as pallbearers, fire a rifle volley salute and perform the requisite basic military honors duties.

With few active-duty bases or Soldiers in Nevada, the Department of Defense allocates the Nevada Army Guard an annual – arguably shoestring – budget to support the mandated military funeral honors for the state’s Veterans. There are more than 200,000 Veterans currently residing in Nevada, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The constrictive budget combined with the aging Veteran population in Nevada resulted in a remarkable schedule for the Honor Guard Soldiers in 2021. The four honor guard Soldiers in southern Nevada supported the staggering number of 765 military funeral honors missions last year; the two based in northern Nevada supported the nearly-astonishing number of 248 missions.

The number in the south will almost certainly increase dramatically due to the fact the Nevada Army Guard will support the northern Arizona region this year, including funerals in Bullhead City, Kingman and Lake Havasu because of the area’s close proximity to southern Nevada. 

Funeral Honors Program administrator retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Richardson said the recent COVID-19 pandemic was not a primary contributing factor to the high number of missions in recent years.

“The increasing average age of the nation’s Veterans is the main reason for our ever-increasing anticipated numbers,” Richardson said. “Our Vietnam-era Veterans are in their 70s and 80s. Even the majority of our Cold War and Persian Gulf Veterans are approaching senior citizen status.”

Additionally, the Honor Guard also performs honorable transfers and often participates in community memorials, color guard events and numerous military- and joint-organizational training events.

To meet the mission requirements, the handful of full-time Soldiers is supplemented by volunteer Soldiers placed on Active Duty for Operational Support orders. The Honor Guard often relies on about two dozen dependable volunteer Soldiers who have received basic honor guard training to support missions.

One fact that few realize is that every Soldier in the Nevada Army Guard is eligible to support Military Funeral Honors missions; new volunteers will receive personalized individual training before their initial missions.

Soldiers who volunteer for Military Funeral Honors duty receive military pay and retirement points; the Soldiers who complete advanced Level 2 training receive an Honor Guard tab and an honor guard shoulder cord.

“Military funeral honors support is one of the best ways a Soldier can contribute to the community,” said Sgt. Christina Aguilar, the NCOIC of the northern Nevada Military Funeral Honors squad.