Staff Sgt. Jennifer Powell is a ceremonial guardsman with the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Powell can lift 300 pounds. She recently hit a new record with squats, lifting 410. “I’m proud of myself for that,” she said.
This isn’t a job that’s required or asked of you. It’s a job you want. It requires stoicism amid the sounds and sights of grief. Because for many families, the U.S. Honor Guard is the last military representation they see.
Staff Sgt. Jennifer Powell, ceremonial guardsman with the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard, chose to become a pallbearer about a year and a half ago, and has participated in more than 150 funerals since.
Even though there are two females on the pallbearer team, Powell is the only active-duty female pallbearer to participate in funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, Va. The first documented female pallbearer joined the Honor Guard in 1972. Powell couldn’t speak about what the requirements were back then, but she follows strict rules now to “get the mission done.”
Besides keeping emotions in check, there is training every day: squats, deadlifts, bench and shoulder press, flexed arm hangs and bicep curls. Powell said she is reminded of her uncle’s military funeral each time she carries a casket. And each carry is different from the next. Powell told Air Force Times that regardless of her memories, the most important thing is to “be locked on, and be part of the team.”
Q. What is going through your mind as you carry a casket?
A. I focus on my movements and my footing. I’m sure you’ve been out to Arlington, where there are a few areas where the ground is just ... not at all manageable. Just carrying and making the final presentation of this person look good is what I need to focus on. Keeping it steady. And also, how proud I am to be able to lay an airman to rest who did, God knows what, during his or her career. Making sure everything is on point, because as the family views us, we’re all locked on, we all look like a team. Just making this flawless is what goes through my mind.
Q. You are one of the first female pallbearers since 1972. Have you spoken with [the first female pallbearer]?
A. Her name is Darlene (maiden name Basso) Rose. I met her at the last annual Honor Guard picnic. She was very happy to see more females on the bearers. Since there’s been some publicity, there have been posts made there have been other female pallbearers. However, we’ve been told they did cremations because of the weight requirements to carry the caskets. That actually makes me happier [about more female pallbearers], because as much as I’d like to represent being a strong female, it’s good to know there have been others.
Editor’s note: Darlene Basso Rose served with the USAF Presidential Honor Guard from February 1978 to March 1981. She was one of the first female body bearers chosen for this position.
In addition to cremations, Rose performed over 1,500 funerals during that time frame. She carried the deceased to the gravesite as part of a six or eight man team, depending on the weight of the casket.
“It's sad to say that I had to also perform a one-man drop — [which is a] sole body bearer carrying an infant casket — to the gravesite,” Rose said in a letter to Air Force Times. “This to me was the hardest job to perform,” she said.
Rose also served as a member of the caisson body bearer team, lifting the casket with her fellow team members onto military caissons.
“It was an honor for me to serve with this elite organization and I am proud to be an alumni,” Rose said. “I'm also proud that there are many more female bearers that have served after me in this prestigious position.”
Q. Having done more than 150 funerals, have any in particular stood out?
A. Yes. But not for reasons that you may think. The casket was heavy and it was ... one of the “long-carry” funerals. Those tend to be ... memorable because it’s pretty rare for Arlington — they don’t have many sections ... that require a long march to the grave site. Others include funerals where you get one or two family members ... and you wonder, “Why isn’t there more family out there for that person?” And then you get those where you get 200-plus people and you think, “Wow, this is amazing.” I would hope there’s that many people when I pass away.
Q. How many funerals do you assist in the matter of a week? Month?
A. That’s a fantastic question. It can range because it depends on Arlington, how they schedule their funerals ... we don’t turn anything down. That’s why it’s crucial for us to stay conditioned. When it comes down to it, every casket weighs from 600 to 800 pounds, and sometimes it can weigh more depending on the person’s “figure.” We have dedicated about 40 bearers on our element. Lately, we’ve been having funerals change on us, and depending on how they change depends on how many teams we have to send out.
Q. Do you have an image of what your own funeral would look like?
A. As jaded as it may seem, a lot of people in the Honor Guard talk about this. You’ll sometimes hear one of the higher-up guys say, “I’m purposefully going to make my casket extra heavy,” for the bearers. It’s quite funny. But I imagine that I would like to be cremated and then be placed inside a wooden casket. That way it’s not too heavy. You do have your cremates, and then the caskets the “body bearers” would carry ... for me, I’d take the casket any day. There’s just something about having a team carry you.