When Dylan Altendorf, United States Army Corporal and 2013 graduate of Braham High School, first enlisted in the Army, he never imagined he would be in the company of dignitaries and world leaders. But that is the honor he was given when placed on the Honor Guard Company 2nd platoon. Altendorf has been one of the eight servicemen who have had the honor of carrying the casket of President George H. W. Bush, Senator John McCain and former First Lady Barbara Bush.
Making of an honor guard
When Altendorf finished basic training, he was assigned to the Old Guard and then placed on the Honor Guard in the platoon that just happened to be in charge of providing casket bearers for state funerals and joint service funerals outside the Military District of Washington D.C.
“I was chosen to carry out this mission because I was one of the most senior guys in our platoon, and I had put in a lot of time training for this very thing–a president's funeral,” says Altendorf. To be part of the Army Honor Guard, a serviceman must be a minimum of six feet tall and able to carry and hold a casket for a long amount of time or distance.
Eight service members carry the casket. The units consists of two army soldiers (Altendorf and the casket team leader), two Marines, two Navy Sailors, one Airforce Airman, and one Coast Guard Seaman. Altendorf is based in Joint Base Myer Henderson Hall, Virginia, and is flown to the various funeral and service sites.
Training is key. Several times per year he trains as part of a collective unit for state funerals with all the branches of military involved in the casket bearing. “We rehearse the whole thing, but we are really training throughout the entire year. Whether it is practicing carrying a casket or folding a flag, it is always important that we stay sharp on those skills in case we are called upon to carry out a mission like this one again,” he says.
“Being part of the honor guard, from day one, we are taught how to maintain our composure and military bearing. Most of the other ceremonies I’ve been part of (Barbara Bush and John McCain) had high profile people in attendance, so it isn't something that is new,” says Altendorf. “But most of them don't have this high of visibility, with so many cameras on us, but you just go back to the training that has been instilled upon you from the beginning, and it isn't too big of an issue.”
When asked how he stays steady on his feet, he responds, “That is funny because if you watch the church arrival from Wednesday night, I actually did trip going up the curb. It isn’t so much about not tripping as it is how you recover and get back in step so as to make it seem not as bad as it is. And that just comes with practice of walking with the casket. We also have a certain way that we sway back and forth when we walk, so we don’t step on each others feet.”
“For me personally, there is no bigger honor,” adds Altendorf. “Just to be selected as part of something like this is a once in a lifetime thing, but to actually be able to carry the casket of a president and to be able to provide final military honors for him and his family is something I will never forget.”
Duties of an honor guard
“The family is the most important part of the mission, and it is our job to make sure their loved one is honored properly and with the utmost respect,” says Altendorf. He has also provided military honors to a number of former service members in cemeteries other than Arlington.
Altendorf recalls former First Lady Barbara Bush’s funeral. “When we carried the first lady’s casket, it was surreal to me because we were in the presence of two former presidents,” recalls Altendorf. “These were men that you see on TV. You would never imagine you would have any impact in their lives, but here you are laying their wife/mother to rest, and they are watching you and seven other guys. It is hard to even imagine.”
Carrying the casket of Senator John McCain was also a huge honor. “John McCain was so loved by everyone in the state of Arizona, and you could really tell that by his funeral service,” recalls Altendorf. “Being in Phoenix, you could feel the admiration from the public. We had more people than I could even count come up to us while we were down there and say, ‘We Just love John McCain. Thank you for doing this for him.’”
But carrying President George H.W. Bush was the ultimate honor. “The whole last week has been one of the most memorable weeks of my life,” says Altendorf. “Being able to just be part of the State Funeral is an honor, but to be able to say that I carried the casket of a former president, will probably be the greatest honor of my life.”
He said much of his duties were the same but there were many more cameras around while his unit carried the president’s casket at the family plot on the grounds of Bush’s presidential library at Texas A&M University. “The most surprising part about the whole process was actually getting to see all of the behind the scenes things that go on to make it look good and sound good on TV,” he recalls. “Being that the casket is the main focus for the whole thing, we got to work with the media during our rehearsals on where to place cameras and what would be the most effective and best looking angle for the ceremony.”
In the days leading up to the funeral and burial, Altendorf recalls rehearsing at the church and at the interment site. “As we were doing our walk-throughs and dry runs with a training casket, we would have the major news outlets walking behind us,” he says. “They would have us pause every so often to make sure their cameras were in the proper position and they had all of the correct angles. They would also mark places where they needed to place microphones in order to hear the commands given by our casket team leader.”
“But even with all the cameras and attendees, the family is still our main focus,” says Altendorf. “I am grateful that we were able to provide a positive last memory of George H.W. Bush to the Bush family and close friends.”
Altendorf will keep this position for the remaining time he is stationed in Virginia, which is for the next four months. He will then be transitioning into the Minnesota National Guard. Until then, his focus will be on training up several of the younger and newer servicemen for his position so they will be able to fill the job “seamlessly” when he does leave.