LANSING, Mich. - The U.S. Air Force honor guard uniform features epaulets, white gloves, service caps and the silver cord but not the name of the person wearing it. This symbolizes that honor guard members represent the U.S. Air Force and its values. Honor guard members live by the mantras “Nameless and Selfless Service” and “To Honor with Dignity.” Master Sgt. Carmen LaGuardia exemplifies them both.
“I love wearing the uniform,” LaGuardia said. “It means everything to me.”
LaGuardia, the 110th Wing’s most experienced honor guard member, has served in the role since April 1999. Over 24 years, she’s rendered honors for more than 2,000 military funerals and color guard details.
In 2005, the Air National Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Valerie Benton selected LaGuardia as Base Honor Guard Member of the Year for the entire Air National Guard. This year, she is again the Base Honor Guard Member of the Year for the Michigan Air National Guard.
In 2003, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base selected her for an active-duty tour supporting the increasing military funeral honors workload in Michigan. During this tour, she visited nearly every funeral home in Michigan’s lower peninsula, educating funeral home directors on the new law and how to properly request Air Force military funeral honors.
Over the years, LaGuardia has trained dozens of active-duty members from every branch of the Department of Defense, as well as reservists from the Air Force and Navy and Air National Guard members from at least three states. LaGuardia has also trained volunteers from the five honor guard teams that service Ft. Custer National Cemetery.
One such member, Capt. Andrew Layton, a 110th Wing Base Honor Guard Team member, remembers her helping him suit up for his first Honor Guard detail as an Airman in 2008. LaGuardia helped to calm his anxiety and set him at ease with some simple words of wisdom.
“I remember her helping me get set up with all my gear when I joined the team. And I was nervous before the first funeral that I did,” said Layton. “She told me that was a good thing — you should always have butterflies. The day that you don’t have butterflies is the day that you shouldn’t be doing an event because you no longer take it seriously.”
LaGuardia joined the Michigan Air National Guard later in life. In 1995, she enlisted as an information management specialist.
“Joining the Air Force was a dream of mine,” LaGuardia said. “I was a customer service manager at Walmart. And one of my employees worked at the Air National Guard. And I told her my dream and my story. So she got me in touch with the recruiter and we did all the paperwork.”
LaGuardia would have to train hard on her own before even joining.
“I was overweight,” she said. “I started dieting and working out, and four months later, I lost 60 pounds. And I went back and raised my hand.”
LaGuardia has performed in over a thousand funerals. The most impactful of these were the funerals of her father and grandfather.
LaGuardia’s grandfather, who served in the Army, secretly asked her to present his flag to her grandmother at his funeral.
“My grandmother didn’t know until the Army folded the flag and then they passed it off to me at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Colorado,” said LaGuardia. “And then she knew when I turned to her with a flag. I just knelt down and presented the flag right in her eyes and said those words. It was just such an honor.”
LaGuardia presented the flag at her father’s military funeral as well. Since he was a Navy veteran, she trained with Navy honor guard members for over a week to learn their honor guard customs. They even developed a set of signals for whether LaGuardia would, in the moment, be able to present the flag to her mother without breaking her military bearing.
“They held the flag as I folded my father’s flag,” said LaGuardia. “I gave them the signal that I would present. So they saluted the flag, and then I went and presented it to my mom. It was an honor to do it.”
LaGuardia’s dedication to the Air Force’s core value of “Service Before Self” is evident in how she lives her professional life.
“I haven’t had a civilian job my whole career because I didn’t want to have to keep going to my civilian boss and asking for time off to do the honors,” LaGuardia said. “We’ve to think about those veterans. You might have a birthday coming up in your family or an anniversary. But, you know, I would want to be there for a veteran. You have to sacrifice a lot.”
LaGuardia’s years of dedicated service are recognized even by other honor guard members.
“As the longest serving member of the team at Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, she has performed over 1,000 funerals in the last 23 years,” said Chief Master Sgt. Erik Morse, the 110th Wing honor guard senior noncommissioned officer in charge. “In the 20-plus years I’ve been involved with the base honor guard program, I have never met a more dedicated person to this program, the veterans, or the families we serve.”
LaGuardia sees her service as a way to give back. She encourages others to thank veterans for their service.
“If you just see a veteran, honor them, and go up and tell them thank you for their service. Some of them it’s very hard to talk to. They don’t talk to their families about their service and the families don’t understand,” said LaGuardia. “But as a veteran, we know what some of them have gone through.”