Pete Benton was a young Air Force lieutenant in the Presidential Honor Guard in Washington, D.C., when he took part in a Memorial Day service in 1986 at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while Ronald Reagan was president.
“We’re all lined up at the tomb,” Benton said of the honor guardsmen. “I see the Medal of Honor recipients come up. I see the blind veterans walk up, the handicapped guys in wheelchairs, the guys missing limbs.
“I just feel this overwhelming sense of sadness and think, ‘My God, what have these men been through.’ My heart’s just breaking. Then President Reagan walked out and I kind of lost it, although I did my best to maintain my military bearing. It makes you proud to be an American.”
All the memories of that day come rushing back to Benton every Memorial Day.
Benton, now 66, was just 10 when he saw the Presidential Honor Guard on TV bury John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I was deeply moved by that, and I told my dad (who was a Marine) that some day that would be a tremendous accomplishment to become a member of the Presidential Honor Guard.”
And that’s just what Benton did. While at his first duty assignment in the Air Force at Pope Air Force Base in 1983, he learned about the special duty assignment with the honor guard. He submitted an application and was selected to be the officer in charge of the ceremonial flight with the honor guard unit.
Benton served in the honor guard from 1986 to 1989 under Reagan and President George. H.W. Bush.
Benton called his time with the unit “phenomenal.”
He said the Presidential Honor Guard’s lineage goes back to the Praetorian Honor Guard of ancient Rome. Those guards were personal body guards to the Roman emperors. Benton likens them to today’s Secret Service.
One of Benton’s duties with the honor guard was funerals.
“I recall one where this gentleman has passed away and had a bronze casket,” he said. “It weighed 1,000 pounds. There were eight body bearers, and I was following them. They said, ‘Capt. B, grab the back of this casket, it’s killing us.’ They had to carry this thing up about 100 yards to the final resting place.”
Benton said he did more than 500 funerals at Arlington National Cemetery during his time with the honor guard, sometimes doing five or six in one day.
He also did ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and got to know the Army honor guardsmen who guard the tomb night and day very well.
“Several years ago, there was a major hurricane in Washington, D.C.,” Benton said. “The commanding general of the Army honor guard told the troops to stand down because he didn’t want them out there in the storm marching and protecting the tomb. They said, ‘No, with all due respect, our fallen comrades are here and this is our sacred duty and honor and we’ll continue that tradition.’ They were in full rain gear, and they marched all day and all night through the hurricane, and they never missed a beat.”
Benton also had other ceremonial duties with the honor guard.
“At the joint service review for the retirements of Gen. John Wickham, Army chief of staff, and Gen. P.X. Kelley, commandant of the Marine Corps, Vice President Bush and all the other chiefs of staff were there,” he said. “It was 98 degrees with 98 percent humidity. Wickham spoke for almost three and a half hours.
“Mark, a Coast Guard ensign, was standing beside me and we’re ceremony at ease. I’m standing there and Mark’s to my left and he said, ‘I’m getting sick, I think I’m going to fall.’ I said, ‘Mark, don’t you fall, I’ll stick you with my saber like a pig.’”
The ensign fell face down.
“Vice President Bush looks at me and says, ‘Pete, pick him up,’” Btnton said. “The Secret Service leans over and says to Bush, ‘Sir, he’s not allowed to move.’ A couple other Army guys came out and picked him up. We made the front page of the Washington Post.”
Benton said that in the Presidential Honor Guard, he worked with the best and the brightest. And he had phenomenal experiences serving under Reagan, Bush and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
“On many occasions after a ceremony, I’d feel a hand on my back and hear, ‘Pete, thank you for the good job you guys are doing,’ and it would be President Reagan or Vice President Bush or Secretary Weinberger,” Benton said.
Benton said he also did other types of ceremonies, like marching through the streets of Philadelphia for the Bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987 and participating in the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in New York in 1986 with President Reagan and French President Francois Mitterand.
“Some of the most enjoyable ceremonies I did were outside of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “One weekend we got a call from West Virginia and the guy they were interring was a fighter pilot here at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. It was absolutely breathtaking. It was in a beautiful valley with rolling hills. They did a flyover, and that was so cool. They did echoing taps, too, with one bugler standing next to the ceremonial flight and one up on the hill.”
Benton even went back to the Presidential Honor Guard to do the state funeral for Ronald Reagan in 2004.
“When you become a Presidential Honor Guardsman, you are put on a roster, and if you’re active duty or a reservist and they need you, they call you back,” he said.
Not only did the honor guard members perform various military functions, but they also were known for their community service work. Among the many projects they did was each year at Thanksgiving, they would go to all the nearby malls and collect toys for needy children. Benton said by Christmas, they would have 5,000 to sometimes 10,000 toys for children all over Washington, D.C.
“Our drill team would go up on Martin Luther King Avenue, and till and grow gardens with fruits and vegetables for the poor people up there,” Benton said.
He said it humbles him to have been a part of the Presidential Honor Guard, where he not only witnessed history, but was part of it. Because of those experiences, he now celebrates Memorial Day with greater enthusiasm, greater inspiration, greater spirit and greater humility.
“I am American by birth and am very proud of that, too,” Benton said. “It’s very humbling to think of the great blessings that God has given us.
Benton encourages everyone to celebrate Memorial Day by reaching out to a veteran and doing something kind, like taking them to a meal, cutting their grass, washing their car.
“Freedom is not free; somebody paid for it,” he said. “Don’t disrespect the veterans who fought for your freedom. Show them the credit, the respect, the honor that they deserve.”