TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. –
As I approached the exit of a building, I noticed a group of Airmen, both commissioned and NCOs, standing as if they could not open the doors to leave. I wondered if the doors were locked or if there was some type of exercise going on that prevented the group from leaving the building.
A technical sergeant noticed my quizzical look and provided the missing information.
"They are doing retreat," he said. My response was immediate, "Good, let's go out and join in."
The assembled mass looked at me as if I had lost my Air Force mind. With that, I excused myself and exited the building.
As I was driving home, I thought about what had transpired. I began to wonder why people try to avoid these ceremonies. That's when it hit me - the ceremonies had become something that served mainly to obstruct rather than remind. It seemed many had forgotten what the ceremonies and the flag truly meant. To some it had become a two-to four-minute nuisance blocking our progress to something more important.
Reveille and retreat are time-honored ceremonies that signal the beginning and the end of the duty day and provide an opportunity to pay respect to the flag and what it means.
In these days of flextime, rotating shifts and deployments, the beginning and end of the duty day can be a relatively ambiguous occurrence. The ceremonies are supposed to serve as a reminder of the importance of the red, white and blue piece of fabric. It is our symbol; it is our flag. Others might say it's only a symbol and ask how important can it be?
Several years ago, in a large airplane hangar in Florida, most of the base population had gathered to memorialize the fine Americans who lost their lives in the middle east.
I waited with my buddies for the ceremony to begin. I was over the shock of losing members of my community, base and career field. We heard a bus arrive and we waited for the customary ruffles and flourishes. It was there that things changed for me.
A voice over the public address system said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please rise."
There was something different about this group. The civilians looked different. Then I figured it out. I played back the announcer's announcement in my mind and realized what I had missed. I hadn't heard the entire announcement. The announcer had said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the families of our fallen comrades." These were the family members left behind by our team members' untimely deaths.
There were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and children. My heart began to ache as the speaker's kind words for the deceased and the names of each fallen comrade were read. Sobs from the families began to waft through the hangar.
The honor guard slowly marched forward, their steel taps striking eerily on the hangar floor in perfect unison, positioning themselves in front of the grieving family members. The detail commander slowly dropped to one knee. There was not a sound in the hangar except the sobs, now extending into the crowd as if it were contagious.
The detail commander then said, "On behalf of a grateful nation, we present to you this flag."
Methodically and crisply, he handed the flag to a family member. Two buglers began to play Taps and the firing detail fired a salute.
As each round exploded, I jumped and somehow felt I could feel and sense the families' losses. Finally, the missing-man formation flew low over the hangar and across the flightline, finishing the emotional morning.
Fast forward three months after the memorial service; life returned to normal and thoughts of our fallen comrades were replaced by everyday life.
My son and I had been making plans for a long overdue visit with my dad. However, everything changed with one phone call.
Some things just have a way of staying with you, as do the following words; "I don't know how else to tell you this, but your dad died tonight. He had a massive heart attack and you need to come home."
A few months later, I received a flag wrapped in plastic mailed to me by my sister. My dad had proudly served in the military and the flag was his. My sister included this note, "You have dedicated your life to service under this flag, and you, more than any of us, understand what it means. Dad would have wanted you to have it."
I shed tears of pride for my father's service and that my sister understood the importance of the flag that I have the honor of serving under each and every day.
By example, yours and mine, our fellow Airmen will learn this same sense of honor.
We are Air Force professionals, fighting in the force that guards our country and way of life. Let us never forget what these ceremonies and the flag of our great nation truly mean.
The flag we serve under, have sworn to fight under and many of us will be buried under must never become a two- to four-minute nuisance blocking our progress to something or someplace seeming to be more important. Why is it that we wait just inside doorways throughout the Air Force? Only you can answer that question.
EDITOR"S NOTE: Master Sgt. Gerald Smart, the commandant of the Sgt. Paul P. Ramoneda Airman Leadership School found this commentary in the school archives. It was written by Senior Master Sgt. Bruce Heinzen when he was the school's flight chief between 2000 and 2004. Now a retired Chief Master Sgt., Heinzen's last position was as the Command Chief Master Sgt. for the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.