Military Funeral Honors Team recognized for professionalism and dedication to service in our communities

By 1st Lt. Cody Stagner, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

Military Funeral Honors Team awarded during a ceremony held at Boone National Guard Center, Frankfort, Ky., on May 21, 2020. In this photo, Capt. Melissa Mattingly, Staff Sgt. Carlos Batista, Spc. Andrew Davidson, Sgt. David Adams, Sgt. Chris Sendelbach, Col. Scott Thomas, and Sgt. Maj. Janet Timberlake. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Cody Stagner, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs)

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Four members of the Kentucky Army National Guard Honor Guard were recognized during a small ceremony held at Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort, Ky., on May 21, 2020.

Receiving awards for always holding themselves to the highest standard in performance, conduct and appearance—both, on and off duty—were Sgt. David Adams and Sgt. Chris Sendelbach of 138th Field Artillery Brigade, and Staff Sgt. Carlos Batista and Spc. Andrew Davidson, both members of the 75th Troop Command.

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“I’ve had the honor of performing military funeral honors duties with the team, and personally witnessed their professionalism during plane-side honors, repatriated remains escort duties, and military funeral honors at various locations throughout Kentucky,” said Col. Scott Thomas, Deputy Director of Kentucky United States Property and Fiscal Office and former G9 Director.

Military Funeral Honors Team awarded during a ceremony held at Boone National Guard Center, Frankfort, Ky., on May 21, 2020. These members wear the ARNG Honor Guard patch as a symbol of honorable service. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Cody Stagner, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs)

“These dedicated team members work every weekend and perform their duties with little or no recognition for what they do,” said Thomas during the awards presentation. “It’s my distinct honor to recognize these four Soldiers for their unwavering professionalism to the military funeral honors mission, The Kentucky National Guard, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the United States Army.”

Capt. Melissa Mattingly, KYARNG Casualty Affairs Officer, commented, “While many are not comfortable missing their families on the weekend or during holidays, these Soldiers are driving hundreds of miles across the state to complete a mission that may last less than 30 minutes.”

“This team has proven time and again they are professionals who are committed to their mission,” said Mattingly, who answers many incoming calls to request honors and oversees operations.

Honors services provided by the Honor Guard begins with a call to Casualty Affairs Office which is managed at the Military and Family Support Directorate (G9) in Frankfort.

The next of kin, or an authorized representative, may request military honors after the death of an eligible Service Member, Retiree, Veteran, or former Reservist.

The KYARNG also supports the Ft. Knox and Ft. Campbell Casualty Assistance Centers (CACs) by providing military honors beyond their 50-mile base radius. The success of many Active Duty CACs rely on the National Guard military funeral honors teams to cover other locations throughout the states and territories.

If the request for military funeral honors is accepted, the team coordinates with the funeral home on when to play taps and fold the ceremonial U.S. flag in front of attendees. The folded flag is then presented to the next of kin—in accordance with service tradition—as a way to honor the former Service Member.

According to Spc. Andrew Davidson, infantryman from Detachment 1, Company A, 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry, members of the honors team participate in several days of precise training prior to their first honors assignment.

“There is a one-week long training where we learned the importance of what we do and even how to fold the flag as a three-member team, instead of the minimum two,” said Davidson. “Then we learn other roles of ceremonies, including how to pall bear and perform the rifle volley.” 

“We know to treat each service with upmost respect and professionalism,” said Davidson. “Presenting the flag in front of the family is a very humbling experience and one of the most honorable jobs the military offers.”

The honor of presenting the folded flag is another important duty of the honors team. This requires the Soldier to kneel in front of the next of kin, look at him or her in the eyes and speak the words, “On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation: please accept this flag as a symbol of your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

Kentucky Army National Guard Sgt. Christopher Sendelbach, from Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery Brigade and Spc. Brandon Wolfe, serving in 2112th Transportation Company fold a ceremonial U.S. flag during a military funeral honors ceremony at Kentucky Veterans Cemetery North in Williamstown, Ky. (photo courtesy of Sgt. Christopher Sendelbach, Kentucky National Guard)

No matter the precise structure of the presentation, Staff Sgt. Batista, a cryptologic linguist in the 20th Special Forces Group, described this moment as unique to every ceremony.

“I have presented to a spouse that is now left alone, as well as a child that lost his parent or grandparent. I have presented to a grown man unable to hold back emotions,” Batista said. “Every time is different. But, we always treat them with the respect they deserve. It is an extreme honor to represent the Army in this way, since most times we are the last impression a family has of any military overall.”

The ceremony has been conducted in this way for more than 125 years.

According to Ms. Janet Timberlake, state coordinator for military funeral honors, the program has provided services for more than 3,500 funerals since it became federally funded in 2013.

In the last three years, the team averaged 820 honors services each year, with an average of five personnel placed on active duty operational support in order to fulfill requests.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to require social distancing and prevent large gatherings, the honors team continues to respond but at a lesser capacity.

“Since the start of shut-downs, the rendering of honors goes on, but the number of requests has decreased,” said Timberlake, who also serves the Guard as G1 Operations Sergeant Major with Joint Force Headquarters.

Timberlake attributes a decreased volume of requests to a ten-person limit on attendees enforced at each funeral service.

“The team was averaging 69 honors per month, pre- COVID-19,” said Timberlake. “During the shut-down, the months of April and May averaged 20 requests.”

Timberlake expects requests to increase as restrictions on public gatherings continue to lift. “As the State Coordinator for military funeral honors—and although I perform these duties in a non-military status—I am very proud to be a part of this military team,” said Timberlake. “These Soldiers are well trained, committed, and they take great pride in what they do. All of these qualities are reflected in each and every service.”

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