An honor guard is a ceremonial unit or detail typically consisting of specially selected and trained military, law enforcement, or other uniformed organization members. Their primary role is to perform ceremonial duties at special events, public functions, and official occasions to represent their organization and pay tribute to individuals or groups being honored.
Each military branch has its honor guard; Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy. The recently formed Space Force is the exception: the High Frontier Honor Guard from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is the de facto official honor guard unit for the United States Space Force. Many state National Guard units have a ceremonial guard as well.
What Honor Guards Do
Honor guards are known for their precision and attention to detail, and they often perform a variety of ceremonial duties, including:
- Presenting and guarding the colors (national or organizational flags).
- Rendering honors, such as presenting arms, saluting, or playing Taps at military funerals or memorial services.
- Providing escort services for dignitaries or fallen comrades.
- Participating in parades, change of command ceremonies, and other official events.
- Conducting drills and performing drill exhibitions to showcase their skills and discipline.
Honor guards often wear distinctive uniforms or attire, including special insignias, accessories, or ceremonial weapons. They may also follow specific protocols, traditions, and rituals steeped in history and cultural significance.
Honor Guard and Color Guard: Not the Same
An honor guard may include a color guard, which carries the state, national, or organizational “colors” or flags. Honor guards can also act as bodyguards, escorting or carrying the casket of a veteran, service member, or government official. However, members of the color guard may not be trained in drills or particular ceremonial actions at the same level as an honor guard member.
Honor guards are typically held to high standards of professionalism, discipline, and conduct, and they serve as ambassadors for their organizations, representing their values and traditions with dignity and respect. They are an essential part of many formal ceremonies and events, and their role is often seen as a mark of distinction and honor.
Six Things Most People Don’t Know About Honor Guards
Now that you know more about honor guards, here are six facts that might surprise you about these elite groups.
Presenting the Colors Was a Military Strategy
The role of the color guard today is ceremonial, but in ancient times soldiers relied on them to find their unit in battle. In the 17th century, soldiers marched in formation, often in large units called regiments. A regiment consisted of about a thousand soldiers led by a commander. Every division had its unique colors or flag. Flag bearers would stand strategically, so soldiers could see them and get into position.
Only highly-trained soldiers could carry the colors since the enemy would try to capture their flag (a terrifying real-life version of the childhood game), signaling a defeat to the conquered regiment.
Few Earn a ‘Tomb Badge’
One of the highest-profile honor guards belongs to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the U.S. Army. The Old Guard is responsible for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It is a tomb that contains the remains of unidentified American soldiers who died in war and whose remains could not be identified.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and has been for every day since 1937. These guards work as a three-person team with 24-hour shifts in all weather, from cold to stifling heat. They must learn intricate walking and turning patterns without verbal commands.
Consequently, few soldiers have the chance to guard the monument, let alone earn the Tomb Badge. Second to the astronaut badge, the Tomb Badge is the least awarded honor in the Army and the second least awarded badge in the Armed Forces. Individuals lucky enough to earn it must maintain decorum and respect for the Tomb even when their guarding duty is over, or they risk losing the Tomb Badge.
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It Takes Up to Eight Hours to Prepare Honor Guard Uniforms
In addition to rigorous, ongoing training, honor guard members must maintain impeccable grooming and dress standards. Preparing their uniforms can take up to eight hours. Ribbon racks, pins, emblems, and other accouterments must always be clean and stain-free. They are carefully removed from the uniform and usually dry-cleaned or cleaned by hand. Once clean, these items must be attached with precise measurements.
Honor guard members are responsible for ironing and steaming their uniforms, including outer garments, for inclement weather. Dress shoes are cleaned and shined. Dress gloves should be spotless and well-fitting. And because honor guards often stand for long periods, they attach garter straps to their socks so they do not fall.
There Are Height and Physical Requirements
Each military branch’s honor guard has slightly different requirements but the same purpose: uniformity. Whether escorting the president or presenting a burial flag to a veteran’s family, honor guard members must share specific physical characteristics.
The most important requirement is that candidates meet the minimum height requirements: 6 feet for men and 5’ 10” for women. Honor guard applicants must also score well on the physical fitness test. They must withstand hours of standing and walking while maintaining proper posture and performing physical duties. Some honor guards do not allow members to wear eyeglasses but permit contact lenses.
Only active duty soldiers with exceptional service records are considered for those interested in joining the Army Honor Guard. Male honor guards should be clean-shaven or with a service-approved, neatly trimmed mustache or beard. Women honor guards may wear makeup, provided that it is natural looking. Their hair cannot be longer than their collar. Women can put long hair into a bun that does not interfere with headgear.
The Reason Behind the 21-Gun Salute
Saluting by firing cannons or guns is a military tradition that dates back to 14th-century naval customs. Warships would fire their cannons out to sea to indicate they were friendly, with no hostile intentions. The British Navy developed a seven-gun salute because their vessels typically had seven cannons. Military forts, having the advantage of keeping gunpowder drier and in greater amounts, would answer three rounds to every one fired by the vessel. Seven guns times three responses equal 21.
In modern times, a 21-gun salute is often performed using blank ammunition, which produces the sound and spectacle of gunfire without the danger of live ammunition. It is considered a prestigious honor and is usually reserved for heads of state, high-ranking military officials, and other dignitaries.
Why Burial Flags Are Folded in a Triangle
One of the most solemn duties of an honor guard is presenting the American flag to a veteran or service member’s wife, husband, child, or another family member. Honor guards are trained to fold the flag in a specific, distinctive triangle shape. But why?
Burial flags are folded into a triangle because they are meant to resemble the tri-cornered hat worn by our country’s first president and commander-in-chief, George Washington. Skilled honor guards wearing white dress gloves fold the flag so the stripes are no longer visible. For those familiar with flag retreat ceremonies on military bases, only the blue background with white stars are visible, like celestial bodies shining in the night sky.
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Honoring All Who Served
Honor guards play a significant role in recognizing the bravery of our military and veterans. Their attention to detail, discipline, and professionalism is regarded as a mark of distinction and pride.
Many ShareLife funeral homes have certified Veterans Funeral Specialists (VFS). They are trained and ready to help veterans and their families with a military funeral’s unique requirements and honors. A VFS advisor can help you understand and obtain the burial benefits and compensation you might be entitled to receive.
We are honored to serve America’s veterans, to whom we owe a debt that will never fully be repaid. To find a Veterans Funeral Specialist location near you, click here.