During the COVID-19 pandemic, physical distancing protocols and stay-at-home orders have caused several Navy and joint ceremonial events to be canceled; however, the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard (USNCG) continues to perform their ceremonial mission including wreath-laying ceremonies and funeral services at Arlington National Cemetery.
“The funerals that we do at Arlington aren’t the only mission that we execute, but they’re by far the most dignified,” said Cmdr. David Tickle, commanding officer of the ceremonial guard. “It’s very important to us that we’re able to pay respects to those who have gone before us. We had to modify the funeral services that we provide to maintain the safety of our folks and all the families, but we do want to make sure we were able to maintain some type of honors.”
USNCG personnel involved in funeral honors wear face coverings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In addition, the USNCG is performing ceremonies with fewer guardsmen than would normally be involved in most ceremonies.
“It’s definitely impacted operations in Arlington,” said Reginald McCallum, USNCG command master chief. “For a standard honors funeral, we have a petty officer-in-charge, eight body bearers and seven Sailors in the firing party. Before COVID-19 we would offer full honors as well, depending on the rank of the service member who died. That would add on a marching platoon, commander-of-troops, and color guard on top of everything in a standard honors funeral. We’re also still offering body bearer services, which just have one chaplain and one guardsman.”
Within the USNCG, there are four specialty platoons: the color guard, drill team, casket bearers, and firing party. Each platoon performs a unique function during a funeral. Physical distancing protocols put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 prevent the USNCG from gathering in large groups to practice as they normally would. Guardsmen are being encouraged to come in individually to hone their skills and techniques.
“We can’t have one casket bearer come in to practice, because that function requires eight individuals to work together as a team. But one member of the drill team can come in on their own and practice their movements. Members of the color guard can hold the colors and practice their movements. I’ve encouraged people to come in, be at least six feet from another person and continue to visualize the ceremony they’re practicing,” said Tickle.
Without a heavy schedule of events to occupy their time, guardsmen have taken advantage of volunteer opportunities on base and in their local community. Members of the USNCG help stock shelves at the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling commissary, stand additional watches, and a team of six guardsmen delivers meals to those in quarantine at Naval Support Activity Bethesda six days a week.
“I get calls daily thanking the guard for helping out. I’m so proud of how squared away and respectful they are. They’re respectful and have a strong willingness to help. Whether they’re helping here or some other base, they don’t mind. When we go recruiting, we pick the best of the best and it shows in the things they do here, out in the community and during ceremonies at Arlington,” said McCallum.
The USNCG currently has more than 170 Sailors, most of which are straight from boot camp. Tickle says leading Sailors during the pandemic is the most unique leadership challenge of his 18-year Navy career.
“The natural question from everyone is ‘When is this going to end?’ I’d like to know that as well, but unfortunately, no one can provide those answers. But, I have to say I’ve been overwhelmed by the sense of volunteerism from my Sailors. I’ve had so many of them come up to me and ask what they can do to help out. It’s a testament to how excited they are to be in the Navy and do their job. It’s been extraordinary and it makes me proud,” said Tickle.
The USNCG represents the United States Navy in presidential, chief of naval operations, joint armed services, Navy, and public ceremonies in the nation’s capital and across the country.