Carrying the colors

They continue no matter the temperature or time of day. They continue when they can’t see, when all they can feel is another shoulder. They continue through fatigue and pain.

Volunteers at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station perform at parades, funerals and at other ceremonies as color guards and honor guards. This year, a group of Marines will be presenting the colors in Vancouver, B.C., at the Consul General’s Fourth of July program. A combined Navy-Marine color guard will lead Oak Harbor’s Fourth of July parade today.

While every member agrees that parading the colors and providing other honors is an “awesome” responsibility, they also say it comes at cost. At least 90 percent of performances are on weekends. And to junior enlisted sailors and Marines, dry-cleaning and other uniform costs can be considerable. Especially when funeral requests keep rolling in.

“I’d need a calculator,” Marine Sgt. Destiny Thomas said when asked what her typical dry-cleaning bill is. Petty Officer 2nd class Dawn Molinero remembers practicing with rifles and having her shirts ripped apart when rifle and material collide.

Although being a color or honor guard member takes time, and money, no one would stop. It’s too much of an honor to relinquish in spite of being uncomfortable, if not in pain, from supporting heavy flags and rifles.

Rifles weigh in at 10 pounds. At 14 pounds, the Marine Corps flag is the heaviest. It has the most embroidery and fringes. Wind is the flag bearers’ adversary. Wind may wrap flags around faces or force battling the staff.

“Sometimes no one can see,” Thomas said. At those times, standing shoulder to shoulder is essential to maintaining the line. In these instances, riflemen are the unit’s eyes.

Winds that keep the flags erect might be the bearers’ biggest challenge.

“You just hold on and hope you don’t fly away,” Sgt. Jason Crispin said.

Discomfort from holding many pounds over time isn’t the only problem. The uniforms are hot and get heavier by the step.

“You get a headache, the cover pinches here and here,” Crispin said, pointing to the center of his forehead and the back of his head.

Members take their responsibilities seriously but aren’t above making fun of each other at practice.

“You just like wearing your blues,” Crispin cracks to Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Vilardo. They critique other groups, particularly color guards at sporting events like Mariners and Seahawks games.

“Sometimes they make you wince,” Thomas said. “But other times, you have to say ‘They look good’.” As they discuss other members’ mistakes and slips, they grimace, and laugh. But when all eyes — and their dress uniforms — are on them, they slip into a “zone” where all they see is directly in front of them. They recognize nothing but who is on their right or left. They move smoothly, as a unit.

Perhaps the hardest part is standing at parade rest, Sgt. Jeremiah Wood said.

Marching, he said, is easy. “You hurt after 10 minutes at parade rest,” he said.

After while, Molinero said, her knees hurt so badly she can think of nothing else.

Today’s Fourth of July parade in Oak Harbor, which starts at 11 a.m., may take 25 minutes to complete. But a funeral might take hours of driving and of setting up, followed by standing at parade rest.

Recently, an honor guard of sailors spent a 15-hour day. They drove to the Eastern Washington town of Tonasket, served at a funeral and returned to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Often, funeral requests don’t come far in advance.

“Sometimes, they get very little notice,” Paul Kuzina said. Kuzina, a funeral director with Burley Funeral Chapel, said families comment on how moving the honor guard was. “Often, they are moved to tears,” he said. “They take pride in what they do and are rightfully called an honor guard,” he added. “I never cease to feel goosebumps when I see the honor guard. We so appreciate their service.”

Everyone said it’s hard not to get emotional at funerals. June 15, Marines provided an honor guard for the funeral in Everett of Pfc. Cody Calavan, a 19-year-old Marine who was killed in Iraq.

“That was so hard,” Thomas said. “It’s much better when people are celebrating, not mourning.”

When emotions run high, discipline kicks in but it may be a struggle to maintain composure, Molinero said.

But even if honor or color guard members get teary, they must keep going.

Narine recalled an incident when he was on honor guard at China Lake, Calif. When the person presented the folded flag and began speaking, the wife of the service member being honored slapped the presenter’s face.

“He blinked and kept going,” Narine said. “That image is burned in my brain.”

All honor guard members say representing the country takes work but brings much pride. If only they could get a dry-cleaning allowance.

Prices they pay

Dry-cleaning bills and other uniform expenses aren’t the only expenditures honor guards face. Flags cost approximately $300. Rifle prices vary. At funerals, rifle salutes expend ammunition. Honor guard members don’t pay for these material costs. However, Marines get rifles as well as flag harnesses from their supply.

Sailors make do with what they have. Today, “what they have” falling apart rifles and a flag finial that’s dangerous.

“Our eagle (finial) is so loose, it’s a hazard,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Dawn Molinero said. She said it’s been super-glued so many times, nothing will make the finial hold.

Parades may happen a few times year but changes of command, retirements and other functions occur all the time. As do funerals, funerals, funerals, honor guard members said. So people, flags and rifles get plenty of wear and tear during practices and performances.

Sometimes, sailors said, rifles don’t fire when they should.

“You hear ‘Ready. Aim. Fire’,” Petty officer 2nd class Colby Narine said. “You pull the trigger but all you hear is click.”

Everyone said it’s embarrassing when equipment fails, but the audience may not notice.

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