MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the Minot Air Force Base Honor Guard in the number of funerals in which these volunteer men and women have provided military honors.
Since latter 2019 to date, Minot Air Force Base Honor Guard members have provided military honors at 282 funerals as of mid-November, according to Staff Sgt. Richard Cabak.
“Usually it averages about 100,” Cabak said of the number of funerals the Honor Guard does in a year’s time.
Being a member of this special group is by volunteer. Each member also has a full-time military job. In his regular Air Force job, Cabak is a maintenance management analyst with the 5th Maintenance Group. With the Minot AFB Honor Guard, Cabak is secondary assistant to the Honor Guard’s noncommissioned officer in charge, Tech. Sgt. Barry Bartlett, and handles various details for special projects.
Each Honor Guard member is an active-duty Air Force member of good standing, the Minot Daily News reported.
Honor Guard members cross train so each is ready to carry out duties if another person cannot.
“For example, yesterday we had a seven-man funeral but every person in that detail had to know the movements of the person next to them and had to be able to carry on just in case we had an issue that would arise where a schedule may have changed or something may have interrupted and that person may have to fill in that position. So it’s ideal for us to make sure there’s as much cross training as possible,” Cabak said in an Oct. 29 interview.
Currently, the Honor Guard has 10 to 20 members. Cabak said the number of Honor Guard members varies from one month to another due to people getting new assignments and moving to other bases, etc. “But usually, 10 to 20 people are available who are with the Honor Guard,” he said.
The volunteers are trained at the Minot base for the Honor Guard.
Cabak said sometimes they’ve had volunteers who have been Honor Guard members at other bases. “That’s actually a boon for us because it lightens our load a little bit. That’s valuable experience especially when you have a detail when you have all brand-new people. It’s good to have some with experience in there,” he said.
Minot Air Force Base Honor Guard members have a large operating territory to provide their services when called upon.
The members cover more than three quarters of North Dakota. They have also traveled out of state to provide services at funerals.
“We actually cover even more than that even,” Cabak said, indicating a map on the wall in the Honor Guard building showing the territory that they cover. “That is our actual operation area but we have contingents where like that pink area covered by Grand Forks lot of times we’ll be tapped to do because of issues that may be happening at Grand Forks.”
The Honor Guard has also been called to Montana for funerals.
“I’ve gone pretty much across North Dakota, one to Minnesota. I have not done Montana yet. I think we’ve had a couple in South Dakota as well,” he said.
“If we get called or tapped to go there, that’s what we do,” he added.
The Honor Guard has a budget to pay for their costs.
Normally, Cabak said a funeral home will contact them about providing military honors at a service. “Once they are informed the deceased is a former member of the Air Force, then they contact us,” he said. Usually, they have three or four days before going to a funeral.
Honor Guard members are split between some serving in even months and others in odd months. “If for example, you have a lot of people who are not able to do it or exceed our capacity for an even month, then (someone on) an odd month will be tapped to come in and help out if need be,” he said.
Often the Minot AFB Honor Guard is called upon to provide military honors at services held at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, south of Mandan.
“I’d say at least probably once a week,” Cabak said.
Generally, the Honor Guard members do not know the deceased or their family members.
“In a lot of ways it’s couched very much so within that regimented training so you’re aware, yes, it’s a deceased person, yes, they’re former Air Force, and yes, we don’t really know their name. But they still wore the same uniform you did. So there’s that aspect where it’s the same,” Cabak said.
Besides funerals, the Minot AFB Honor Guard does color ceremonies, retirement ceremonies and sometimes participates in state events such as the North Dakota State Fair Parade in Minot.
But funerals have the priority.
“Always,” said Cabak. “We’re congressionally mandated to do so.”
This year the Honor Guard has also done about 100 color [flags] ceremonies since events have restarted [as a result of COVID-19], Cabak said.
Recently the Honor Guard moved into a different building on base for them to conduct their training. “This is a much better training ground for us,” Cabak said. “We’re really happy where we’re at.”
Cabak said there are “multiple different” reasons why he is involved in the Minot AFB Honor Guard. Primarily, he said he has an interest in history and noted a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to a Miss Bixby in 1864.
“I think probably the primary reason is I have an interest in history,” Cabak said. He referred to the consoling letter President Abraham Lincoln sent to a woman who was thought to have lost five sons in the Civil War.
“In reading that you get a real handle on what the military service is. It is a sacrifice and we are the last visible face of official aspect that the family is likely to see. The result is we want to make sure that they are understood that we know their sacrifice. We want to honor it properly,” Cabak said.