In a quiet room, 20 men and women set to work, precisely folding, creasing and tucking the 87 flags into compact triangles. These flags, which gloriously flew the day before in a warm August breeze, were lovingly readied for their final destination; the arms of the survivors of 87 fallen firefighters.
“We want to pay it forward. We get it.” These two phrases are the unofficial mantra of the Honor Guard who recently volunteered their time for two days to prepare the flags for the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend, October 3-4.
Honor Guard Units handle the formal events including parades, funerals or memorial services and any firefighter can join. Honor Guard Academies offer training on the ceremonial traditions as well as how to help families find resources they need.
“Most people who join the Honor Guard have a personal connection. Some have been touched by a line-of-duty death while others want to offer support and comfort to the survivors on behalf of the fire service,” explained Earl Lincoln, of the Hooksett (NH) Fire Department, who has coordinated the Honor Guard Flag Detail for the Memorial Weekend for seven years.
Each year Lincoln ensures there are three or four Honor Guards who have served for several years continuously and those who represent a department with a firefighter being honored at the Memorial Service. While they come from different experiences and backgrounds, by the end of the two days he says there is a profound bond among each group.
Yaisa “CJ” Gomez, from Jersey City (NJ), was proud to join the Honor Guard Flag Detail this year along with two other co-workers. In 2014, the Jersey City Department suffered the line-of-duty deaths of Firefighter Gregory D. Barnas and Firefighter James Woods. She worked with both men, and Barnas was the father of one of her classmates.
“The Honor Guard is the face of the department,” she said. “Someone has to be there for the families during this time, not just for the physical presence but for the emotional support.”
During Paul Enhelder’s 30 years with the Chicago Fire Department, the department experienced 59 line-of-duty deaths. He felt being in the Honor Guard was the perfect way for him to offer support to the survivors.
“I’ve talked to many survivors, from Chicago and other departments, and they all appreciate these efforts,” he said. “This simple act reassures them that their loved ones won’t be forgotten. And that’s what it’s all about.”
For Matt Hall of the Gaston (NC) Volunteer Fire Department, participating in the Flag Detail and volunteering in the Memorial Weekend is especially poignant. Matt’s father was honored at the 2008 Memorial Weekend and three years later, Matt volunteered to be a Family Escort. This year is his first as an Honor Guard.
Hall described his two days of Flag Detail as a flood of emotions. He feels the experience expanded his knowledge about the ceremonies and made him more humble.
“This will help me tell the full story to any survivors I meet. I can now share the full circle. I can be there for them,” he said.
As the last flag was folded and all 87 were readied for presentation, Lincoln stepped back and smiled approvingly at the group. “We’re all here with the same mission or intention. It comes from within,” he said. “We get it.”