A battle of precision

Coast Guard Headquarters NewsThey met upon a concrete battlefield in the heart of our nation’s capital. There was no roar of cannon fire, no explosions, no ground to be captured or defended. All that was heard was the steady cadence of rifle buts striking the ground, heels snapping together and gloved hands smacking in unison the wooden hand guards of rifles. Each branch of the armed forces was represented; each came to test honor, courage, skill, and precision – not to eliminate an enemy or save a life – but to demonstrate the discipline, skill and mettle necessary to be part of an elite community within an elite community.

Brass, chrome and leather gleamed brightly in the noon sun. Every uniform was crisp and pristine, reflecting the pride and attention to detail possessed only by those who know what it means to render honors, carry on the finest traditions of military customs and courtesies, provide solace to grieving families, and celebrate our nation’s triumphs.

On this crystal clear April afternoon, tourists, veterans and local residents gathered at the steps of the Jefferson Memorial to cheer for their favorite service and to witness the grace that is military drill.

The Joint Service Drill Exhibition, held this year in conjunction with the Centennial of the Cherry Blossom Festival, showcased the talents of the silent drill teams of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Merchant Marine Academy and the Coast Guard. Each team had 15 minutes in which to demonstrate their skill, strength and control in hopes of earning a competition trophy. Consistent with military engagements, there was no award for second best.

The Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard’s Silent Drill Team is composed of 16 members who are selected from the Ceremonial Honor Guard, based in Alexandria, Va. At a current strength of 75, the Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard – much like the service as a whole – is significantly smaller in size compared to its DOD counterparts.

According to Lt. Jason Himsey, Ceremonial Honor Guard officer in charge, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps teams have a strength of about 200 members each. It gives them the advantage of having a broader base of candidates from which to choose when selecting silent drill team members.

Himsey also noted that the smaller size of the Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard means that the silent drill team has fewer opportunities to train and practice together as a unit because, unlike the DOD teams, the Coast Guard’s silent drill team is a collateral duty, meaning team members must also handle other missions assigned to the Honor Guard.

The ability to train together is critical to success and to building confidence and trust.

“There’s a certain element of danger involved with what we do,” said Himsey. “There’s a 13 and a half pound weapon with a fixed bayonet moving at high speed so that presents a cutting hazard. The air-toss movements present the risk of stabbing.”

Those risks became pointedly clear as the silent drill team’s drill master, Petty Officer 1stClass Andrew Hammersmith marched between two columns of drill team members as they spun and passed weapons inches in front and behind him. Later in the drill, Hammersmith stood motionless and unflinchingly as four bayonets stopped inches from his face.

There was an air of confidence and maturity about the silent drill team members that belies their young appearance. Himsey said the average age of an Honor Guard member is now about 24, which he noted is a change from when he first served on the team as a seaman, noting that some are married and others have degrees.

But it stands to reason that a unit whose mission is to represent the Coast Guard would mirror the service as a whole. Just as boat crews and aircrews train to achieve proficiency, so too do members of the Honor Guard. In addition to embodying the core values of the Coast Guard, members of the Honor Guard must embrace the unit’s core values of Pride, Poise and Perfection. “They practice for hours and hours,” said Himsey, “and then there is lots of solo practice, where members work on maneuvering the weapon, maneuvering it around themselves, working on hand placement and points of release, which are critical for executing the maneuvers safely.”

For all their training, practice and effort, the Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard’s Silent Drill Team put on a great show for an appreciative crowd, but it was the Air Force’s team that earned the competition trophy this year. But there is no time to for the Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard to dwell on this moment, for them it’s on to the next detail – this time in New Orleans – for an event that is part of the nation’s Bicentennial of the War of 1812.

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