DALLAS, Texas--The Dyess Air Force Base honor guard program manager, reached out to me unexpectedly on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 regarding assistance for active duty military funeral honors for U.S. Congressman, retired Col. Samuel Robert Johnson, former prisoner of war and prior Thunderbird pilot.
Johnson was a decorated fighter pilot in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The colonel was shot down in North Vietnam, suffering a broken arm and broken back. He was captured as a POW and endured torture and solitary confinement for nearly seven years. He was released in Operation Homecoming and returned to the U.S. The veteran went on to give 28 more years in service in the Texas House of Representatives.
Upon reading the page of information provided by the funeral home, I was astounded by everything the Congressman had done and given. I read everything I could about him. A quote of President John F. Kennedy flashed through my head, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
COVID-19 brought a ton of challenges. It hurt Dyess’ honor guard manning and made the process of even getting to Dallas extremely difficult. In the end, people from very high up in the chain decided this detail is global strike essential and paved the way for us.
We practiced and practiced and practiced before we arrived and even more after. It was imperative we embodied perfection. Only myself and one other member at the time had experience with an active duty funeral. We shared our stories and experiences to prepare the other six members for the mission ahead.
We expected a very high attendance, many different news agencies were there, and cameras were on us at all times.
The Honor Guard Charge was running through my mind as we were getting ready. No matter the type of ceremony. No matter the severity of the temperature. No matter the size of the crowd. It was going to be one of the most prestigious ceremonies we could perform. It was a hundred degrees. We knew Johnson was an important man, and we knew a lot of people could show up but we didn’t know how many. That was unnerving. Even so, I was confident we were prepared to give the best performance to our ability.
The ceremony started off as Johnson’s flag-draped casket, drawn by a caisson, came to a halt. Our combined honor guard team rendered a salute leading into the military honors ceremony. Seeing the carriage arrive, the officer in charge of the combined team snapped to attention.
Then he marched to the rear door of the cart ensuring the casket was prepared for the pallbearing team to retrieve then deliver him to his grave. The pallbearers carried Johnson to the gravesite and prepared his interment flag for the military ceremony.
For active duty funeral sequences, teams can easily be standing in place waiting to perform for an hour. As a ceremonial guardsman, we train our minds to find a happy place for your thoughts; to wiggle the toes to keep the blood flowing and focus on your breathing patterns.
The Texas sun beat down upon all of us as we all stood motionless and silent during the eulogy. It was silent. I could hear the vehicles on the highway. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to distinguish the sound of the coming flyover from the traffic. I heard the wind. I heard myself breathing through my mask.
I was getting tired, there was sweat dripping down my face and there were bugs crawling up my legs.
The eulogy came to a close and there was a bone-rattling roar screaming overhead. As I felt the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird team rumble through me, I was filled with a new motivation, pride and even adrenaline. This is what it means to be in the U.S. Air Force. Flyovers at funeral honors always send chills down my spine, especially when it’s the elite Thunderbird team.
As the sound of the Thunderbirds faded, the officer in charge saluted Johnson’s casket initiating the military honors sequence. The colors team rendered a final salute, followed by the firing of the three volleys by Laughlin’s own firing party. A professional bugler rendered TAPS during the silence following the shots. Finally, the pallbearing team folded Johnson’s internment flag and handed the cased flag to the officer in charge. He knelt to one knee presenting the flag to Johnson’s daughter and delivering the message of condolence. He then performed one last salute to Johnson’s flag and ordered the funeral detail to depart the gravesite.
Despite everything going on in the world right now--all the concerns and uncertainties--we were extremely honored to be able to assist in providing Congressman Johnson’s final honors. In the moment, I forget about what’s going on with the rest of the world and focused entirely on the mission. In that moment it was all about ensuring the family, friends and everyone else touched by Johnson’s life can be solely focused on and appropriately grieve as they say their final goodbyes.