Story by Gregory Mitchell on 06/12/2019NAVAL AIR STATION PENSACOLA, Fla. One of the most important programs the Navy has to offer is the coveted Funeral Honors Support Program (FHSP). The program's necessity is evident due to the abundant number of funerals conducted throughout the year at Barrancas National Cemetery onboard Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola.
Being a part of the Funeral Honors Support Team (FHST) calls for paying respect towards those who have faithfully defended their country. FHSP recognizes and commemorates the honorable service of deceased military personnel. The practice of rendering funeral honors is considered a solemn and sacred obligation.
"It is obviously a sad time for someone when they lose a loved one, but when the families show you that they really appreciate what you are doing for them, it feels like you are giving something back to them," said Aviation Boatswains Mate (Equipment) 2nd Class Timothy Wesley, leading petty officer.
"Being a part of the funeral honor team means that it is our responsibility to ensure that the service member has the opportunity to lay to rest in as much peace as possible. It is a serious commitment that we aim to fulfill each and every time we set foot on Barrancas National Cemetery."
Funeral honor teams consist of active duty service members. There is no specific requirement to be a part of the team; selections are strictly based on the need at each respective command.
"The most rewarding thing about being a part of this team is that we have the opportunity to honor service members that have passed away by providing a ceremony fitting for them," said Aviation Boatswains Mate (Equipment) 2nd Class Joshua Jones, assistant leading petty officer.
Ceremonies for all other veterans consist of, at a minimum, the folding and presentation of the American flag and the sounding of "Taps" by a detail of two uniformed service members. One of those personnel will present the flag to the designated next of kin.
Preparation for the FHST consists of hours of formation drills. Uniforms requirements are stringent, with Sailors selected for assignment with the NAS Pensacola FHST held to significant standards as their job presents a very public face of the air station. The team typically arrives at the gravesite at least one hour prior to do final rehearsals prior to actual start times.
"It's more than just a job," said Machinist Mate 2nd Class Joshue Serrano, former leading petty officer. "Having both physical and mental preparation is key to our success. Everyone has to be 100 percent right to perform. We try to put ourselves mentally into the family member's shoes because we want them to feel that their family member is as important as if he or she is truly what they are one of our own."
The NAS Pensacola FHST provides services to approximately 50 funerals per month. As anticipated, there can be emotional attachments that comes due to serving in the capacity of an honor team member.
"The most memorable funeral for me was a Navy reservist with two children," said Serrano. "His children were 6 years and 8 months old exactly the same as my two children. I cannot begin to fathom what it is would be like if I left my children behind at such an early age."
"I can remember my first funeral very well," said Jones. "I took it hard because once I began to perform "Taps," it reminded me of my uncle who was a Marine and served during the Vietnam War. I get goosebumps to this day talking about him."
Wesley had a different take on the services.
"For me, it's more nerve wrecking than emotional," said Wesley. "I just do my best to focus on the task at hand because I am really determined not to make a mistake out of respect for the family members. I want this moment to be what it is; a special intimate time in the lives of the families that cannot be replaced."
Arguably, the most intense portion of services is when the presenter has to present the American flag to the immediate next-of-kin.
"We have to take turns on being the presenter because that sometimes can be emotionally overbearing," said Jones. "Recently I was the presenter on behalf of a Sailor that passed away during training in school. She was only 18. That was an intense moment for me because I had to hand the flag to her mother. For a mother to lose her child at such a young age has to be one of the saddest moments in a mothers' life."
In spite of the tension-filled atmosphere outside of the funeral team office, within is another story.
"We try to have laughs and lighten up while within our shop," said Wesley. "It helps to keep an even keel for everyone. Since our jobs are 95 percent of the time serious, we like to break the ice within to help people wine down. Funerals can affect each of us in different ways; you never know what someone is going through after providing services."
Each team member agreed on one thing; serving in the FHST is an honor.
"I am about to transfer very soon and I can honestly say that being a part of this team will definitely be at the top of many highlights of my career," said Serrano.