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NEWS | April 5, 2021

Heritage evolved: United States Air Force Honor Guard breaks barriers with first women-led funeral honors

By Tech. Sgt. Katie Edelman 11th Wing Public Affairs

At Arlington National Cemetery on a sunny day in March, the sound of a snare drum grows closer. At the Millenium Project section of the cemetery, a ceremonial burial is underway. A cason approaches, and behind that, for the first time in United States Air Force history, a pallbearer team of four women and two men. 

Before this moment, there had never been more than one woman on a pallbearer team. 

The United States Air Force Honor Guard is the official ceremonial unit of the United States Air Force and is located at JBAB. Performing more than 3,000 missions each year,  the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard has more than 200 ceremonial guardsmen, nearly 60 of whom are women. 

At the funeral on March 22, the 8-member firing party and four of the six pallbearers were women, an historic milestone for women in the ceremonial unit. U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Ngoc-Anh Huynh served as the Commander of Troops and Col. Erica Rabe, JBAB 11th Wing vice commander, served as the officer in charge. 

This team of mostly women honored U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bruce Burns in Section 82 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. Burns served in the United States Air Force from 1962 to 1982. His spouse, Janet Burns, received the flag from his service.

“First and foremost, it was an incredible honor to be a part of this solemn ceremony, paying respect to a fellow Airman and his family,” said Rabe. “And given the historical nature of this particular Honor Guard detail, with so much female representation, it made me even more proud.”  

Great strides have been made to integrate women into the military. From those first being allowed to serve in the military, to being able to serve in all units, including combat roles. 

“It really wasn’t that long ago that women were not allowed to serve in all positions within the honor guard,” said Rabe.  “So the team certainly made history today.”  

Rabe emphasized that while they were all honored to be a part of this day, their number one focus was to ensure the utmost professionalism and respect was paid to that Airman and his family.

The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard integrated women into the unit in 1976 with “The First Five,” the name used to refer to five women who were the first to complete the ceremonial training. Their transition into the unit was not easy.

Anecdotes about those days revealed the attitude from many that their presence was a degradation to the standard the Honor Guard represents was a lot to overcome. They persevered and, through demonstrated dedication and commitment to their mission, eventually won over their new teammates. The unit has been integrated ever since.

Senior Airman Sadie Yarbrough, a member of the pallbearers team at the funeral on March 22 and also the first woman on the pallbearers team in many years, said she felt the pressure of being the only woman. 

“Everyone was super hyped about a woman being in and that makes the expectation and attention even higher,” she said. “Everyone is looking at you.”

Airman Yarbrough and her teammates Airman 1st Class Tiaera Phillips and Airman 1st Class Pkacia Johnson agreed that with those high expectations, you quickly adjust to the feeling that someone is always watching you, no matter your gender. 

Master Sgt. Kieston Mair leads the pallbearers as flight chief of the element. Coming from a career in Aviation Management, she was used to often being the only woman in a meeting or on a mission. When she joined the Honor Guard in 2019, she was the only female key leader in the unit. Now there are two female NCOs and one female officer. 

Mair said watching her team train, perform and grow daily is the best part of the job. 

“I’m always, every day, in awe of what they do,” she said. “It never gets old.”

For the women in the pallbearers element, being in the minority in an element that is predominantly male, doesn’t negatively impact their experience. They feel like a part of the team, and are able to focus on their mission, they agreed. 

“The opportunity we get, it’s once in a lifetime stuff,”  said Airman Phillips. 

Monday’s funeral was a special moment for all personnel involved in the ceremony. “It was awesome having an all women’s team out in Arlington,” Airman Johnson said.  “To see women come together to get the mission done was inspiring.” 

Of note for her during the ceremony, she said, was the admiration and appreciation of leadership she felt for  her flight chief, Sergeant Mair.

“The standout moment for me was the flag fold,” said Airman Johnson. “The flag turned out perfect. The sequence was very smooth. I love my team, and I’m very thankful for all the countless days we train. We train for moments like that.”