Members of elite corps gather to remember, celebrate brotherhood
By Dennis Hill
Published in News on April 19, 2011 1:46 PM
News-Argus/MICHAEL K. DAKOTA
Three of the four former members of the Air Force Presidential Honor Guard currently working out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base are seen in front of the Seymour Johnson Honor Guard and Drill Team bus. From left: Senior Airman Chris King, Lt. Col. Pete Benton and Staff Sgt. Peter Icing.
They have watched history unfold -- standing at attention next to the president of the United States.
And this past weekend, four members of the Presidential Honor Guard reunited in Wayne County to remember their service as part of one of the country's most elite corps.
One member is a reservist with the 91th Air Refueling Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, while three others serve with the 4th Fighter Wing.
The bond that unites them is special. Hand-picked from hundreds of applicants, they have stood at attention while presidents have been inaugurated, and buried. They have stood and withheld their tears at hundreds of military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and have been the commanding presence at ceremonies of state around the world.
Lt. Col. Pete Benton, 57, served for four years as a member of the Air Force Presidential Honor Guard during the terms of President Ronald Reagan and George Bush. He was recalled to participate in Reagan's funeral.
"You really feel like you are an ambassador for your country," Benton said.
A reservist with the 916th Wing, Benton served as deputy commander of the Air Force Honor Guard.
Each of the five services has its own honor guard to serve at the president's behest. Benton said about 250 men and women serve in the Air Force unit. More than three times that many serve in the Army and Marine honor guards, he said. All the honor guards serve in a variety of capacities, with funerals at Arlington National Cemetery high on the list. Benton, who grew up in Havelock and played football at East Carolina University, said he took part in more than 500 services during his time in Washington, D.C.
The job is never routine, he said. "There were many occasions when I fought back the tears."
Honor guards are chosen based not only on their military records, Benton said, but on their complete backgrounds. They are, after all, given access to the president and his entourage. Many are former members of security units.
"We're looking for someone who projects a strong, positive, patriotic image," he said, "with an impeccable record. We want most clean-cut model American citizens. We want to find extremely well-rounded men and women."
Benton said he believes two factors that helped him make the cut had nothing to do with his military record and he pulled from his pocket two round symbolic coins. One indicated his faith in God, the other that he is an Eagle Scout.
Staff Sgt. Peter Icing is a member of the 4th Fighter Wing. He is 26 years old and served for five years in the Presidential Honor Guard.
"The best thing I can compare it to is being one of a band of brothers," Icing said. "You try to learn the best way to become a team. Traveling so much, those guys become you family."
A native of New Jersey, Icing stood guard at the funeral of former President Gerald Ford and at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which he called an "awesome" experience.
"We know that we are the face of the Air Force," Icing said.
Being part of an elite unit gives its members a sense of pride that carries on for years afterward, Icing said.
"As a member of the Honor Guard you learn principles that make you successful, not only in the Air Force, but in life," he said. "Just the way you carry yourself. We take it to heart. We live it and breathe it."
The other two former members of the Presidential Honor Guard are also members of the 4th Fighter Wing. They are Senior Master Sgt. Tom Lenig and Senior Airman Chris King.
King, 25, is a native of South Carolina. He served for about three years in the Presidential Honor Guard and has been in the Air Force for about five years.
King said he was ready "to do backflips," when he found out he had been accepted into the Honor Guard. He had seen the guard perform soon after he finished basic training, he said, and knew immediately he wanted in.
"I said to myself, 'I'd love to do that,'" he recalled.
"They train you to be proud of what they make you," King said, describing the special training required for guard duty. "It's strenuous training, but they train you to be very proud of who you are. Even two years later, I prepare the same way, that's who I am."
He also said the special training was difficult.
"You've got to be in shape, you've got to learn how to take care of yourself or you won't last."
But he still considers his time with the guard something to treasure.
"I wouldn't change a minute of it," he said. "It's a huge honor."
Icing and King said that once they arrived at Seymour and word got around that they had served on the Presidential Honor Guard, they were asked to help assist in the training of the Seymour Johnson Honor Guard.
Membership truly is a brotherhood, they said, and both said they enjoyed mentoring the younger airmen who form the base's unit.
The honor guards and drill teams are a powerful recruiting tool, Benton said.
"When they see these guys, it really impresses them," he said.
Members of the units must be weapons qualified. The rifles they use in their drill routines are real weapons, with real bayonets. Members of the Marine and Army units are trained to serve as true bodyguards in emergencies, Benton said.
Precision is the key to the job, all of the guardsmen said. And practice is the key to precision. Units serving at funerals are divided into three parts: color bearers, body bearers and riflemen.
"You really have to know your marching procedures and your drill procedures," Benton said. He recalled one member of the Presidential Guard whose bayonet slipped and cut his hand badly. The airman continued through to the finish without a hitch, he said, although his white glove had turned red from the blood.
Benton said serving in the Presidential Honor Guard creates a camaraderie that is not diminished by time. There are reunions held periodically, he said, that give former guardsmen a chance to fellowship, share stories and recall special moments. Moments when the world turned to look at America and saw its strength represented in a handful of men and women, precise and proud.