Honor Guard Takes Care Of Our Own

  • By Carol Underhill, Public Affairs Officer, Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Men and women from the Forest Service are in dress uniforms standing at attention with helicopters.

An important group of Forest Service employees trained in Redding at the end of January 2020. The USDA Forest Service Honor Guard takes its mission of “Taking Care of Our Own,” very seriously. The Honor Guard represents the agency at memorial services for fallen firefighters and other employees, highlighting the sacrifices they have made on behalf of national forests, Forest Service employees and the American public.

The Honor Guard is a tight-knit group that focuses on reflecting the core values of honor, duty, integrity and professionalism. They proudly honor the fallen at funerals and graveside services and at other ceremonies, when called upon by the Chief of the Forest Service.

Honor Guard members come from all across the nation and the nine regions of the Forest Service, including several members from the Pacific Southwest Region (Region 5 – California and Hawaii). They have in many cases been serving with the Honor Guard for a dozen or more years. Belonging to the guard is a commitment above and beyond a member’s normal “day job.”

For many members, their participation in the Honor Guard is a calling. It can be the most important part of their job with the agency because it’s a way to honor their Forest Service co-workers and represent the agency at its highest standard. Their presence at events provides a sense of professionalism and duty. And families notice.

“The Honor Guard Motto is Officum Supremus Ego or Service above Self,” explained Honor Guard Coordinator Juan Zepeda. “This motto serves as a reminder that the service we are providing, on behalf of our agency, is not about us, but about the family.”

The Honor Guard has participated in events such as the Rose Parade and presentation of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, which is harvested each year from a national forest. Those events help the agency promote pride in the U.S. Forest Service and share that pride in our public lands with all Americans.

The precision of the Honor Guard is no accident. The group meets twice a year and practices for hours and hours. Sessions involve training new members and reviewing procedures and processes for flag etiquette, flag folding, marching and drills. Their commitment shows in services laden with tradition.

Memorial services can include carrying chrome-plated firefighting tools, playing “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes and presenting the colors, or flags of the United States, the Forest Service, and the state. At the end of the service, they ring a fire bell as a symbolic "last call" for the fallen employee. Guard members then carefully fold an American flag into a neat triangle and present it to the grieving family.

Over the past decade, the Honor Guard has become ingrained as an essential part of the agency, paying tribute to employees who dedicate their time, skills and efforts to make the Forest Service what is it today. The Honor Guard was adopted as a national program in 2010.

The Honor Guard is recruiting for band members including experienced bagpipers and drummers to represent the agency at memorials, ceremonies and special events. Requirements include experience playing bagpipes/drumming, preferably in a pipe and drum band. Musical knowledge necessary for performances must be the melody of “Amazing Grace,” but should also include other slow airs for funeral and memorial services. The piper must be able to supply, maintain and tune the bagpipe and be comfortable performing at high profile events. For more information contact Pipe Major Tod McKay at tod.mckay@usda.gov.