An Air Force honor guard team from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., participates in a burial ceremony. Funeral honors for military retirees have been downsized to a two-person Air Force honor team. (2nd Lt. Michael Gibson / Air Force)
There’s a change happening Air Force-wide in the mortuary affairs program, and most may not know about it until, well, it’s too late.
Funeral honors for military retirees have been downsized to a two-person Air Force honor team rather than seven. That also applies to members of the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard who die while not on active duty. The change is an update to AFI 34-242, the instruction for the mortuary affairs program.
The change means retirees will be offered the same size honor team that other veterans have been offered for years. The Air Force supported 29,722 funerals in 2012.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Fewer honor guard members will be available. This mandate will affect all Air Force honor guards, from the headquarters down to the base level. The standard seven-person military honors team usually consists of pallbearing, flag presentation, firing party and taps. The two-person funeral procession now consists of flag presentation and taps. The military retiree’s procession — and his final carry — will be arranged by the family.
2. No change for some airmen. This does not affect funeral services offered to active-duty personnel, active-duty members of the Air National Guard and Reserve, and Medal of Honor recipients. They are all entitled to full military funeral honors consisting of a 20-person detail of six pallbearers, eight-person firing party, a bugler, four-person color guard and a detail officer or noncommissioned officer in charge. An Air Force chaplain may participate in the ceremony if requested by the family.
3. Why this is happening. The change was driven by budget constraints due to sequestration. “The Air Force will save more than $1 million in material and travel expenses [because of this decision] alone,” said Capt. Erika Yepsen, an Air Force spokeswoman. “Although we don’t have an exact calculation for what we will be saving on military personnel expenses, we will realize a substantial savings.” The two-person team is the standard under U.S. Code section 1491. The Air Force had been providing more for retirees before the reality of budget cuts set in. “We are [reverting] back to this law. This is all we can guarantee to provide,” Yepsen said.
4. You have an alternative. Base commanders can field a seven-person team for retirees if the honor guard members are available. If honor guard members are not available, commanders may contact members from Veteran Service Organizations, other retirees or Reserve Officer Training Corps units, etc., provided they are willing to “pay a statutory stipend.” Military veterans also may contact a VSO, other retirees or ROTC units to request an upgrade to a seven-member team.
5. When this goes into effect. The update was published June 4 in the Air Force Mortuary Affairs program instruction, AFI 34-242, and will trickle down through the Air Force beginning immediately.