WASHINGTON – Pallbearers with the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard have the central role in carrying the remains of deceased service members, their dependents and senior leaders to their final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.
They begin by removing the casket from the caisson used to transport the deceased. They then carry the fallen to the gravesite while keeping the casket perfectly level and without any visible signs of strain. Caskets weigh anywhere from 600-800 pounds and the carry can easily exceed 60 yards.
Currently there are two women qualified to perform this incredible duty for the Honor Guard – staff sergeants April Spilde and Jennifer Powell. As it stands, they are also two of three women to ever serve as pallbearers for the Air Force Honor Guard since 1972.
Spilde has been in the Air Force for almost six years. A native of Minneapolis, Minn., she was working in security forces at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Ak. when she heard of an opportunity to join the elite Air Force Honor Guard located at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB).
“I witnessed ceremonies for fallen comrades before and always found them to be amazing. Being a pallbearer is something I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while,” Spilde said. “I inquired with my chief at the time, who was impressed with how I was training and put an application package together. I had to wait a whole year before joining, but it’s been well-worth it.”
Spilde has been with the Honor Guard now eight months and is enjoying every minute of her service. She was so passionate about being a pallbearer that she hired a certified weight lifting coach while stationed in Alaska to help her get accustomed to all the physical demands of the assignment. That preparation would pay dividends for Spilde, as she not only achieved her dream of being a pallbearer, but went on to capture two Alaska state records during a women’s Olympic weight lifting competition in 2012.
“It was important for me to be prepared. In addition to working out and doing cardio, I made sure I was eating properly and maintaining a proper diet,” Spilde said. “To be a pallbearer, you want a professional appearance. You’re part of an elite unit and you need to prove that you deserve to be there. That stoked the fire.”
Powell, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, was drawn to the Honor Guard following the death of her uncle, who was also her godfather and a retired Air Force service member. While working as a dental assistant at Sembach Air Station in Germany, she got news of his death and immediately flew home for the funeral. It would be an experience she would never forget.
“The tribute for him took my breath away. I don’t normally get emotional, but I did for that,” Powell said. “I remember everything about that day. It was quite memorable. It got me thinking about what it’s like to be a part of that group.”
About three years later while stationed at Robins Air Force Base, Ga. Powell learned of an opportunity to serve with the base Honor Guard. She jumped at the chance and would go on to serve in numerous ceremonies there. Though, the desire to challenge herself and do something on a greater scale came calling. She pushed hard to get her application package together, but didn’t hear anything right away. About six months later, she received the long-awaited good news.
“When I got word that I was selected, it was a dream come true,” Powell said. “It’s one of those moments you really can’t describe. Being selected meant everything in the world to me.”
She’s now been with the Honor Guard at JBAB for a little more than two years. Because all pallbearers are held to the same physical requirements, Powell doesn’t leave any room for error. A usual routine for her is running and lifting weights for an hour and a half in the mornings. According to her, determination is all that stands in the way of other female service members becoming pallbearers.
“Anyone can do it if they want it bad enough,” Powell said. “I feel a tremendous sense of pride in being a pallbearer. It’s personally rewarding.”