Officers practice skills, dignity at honor guard training
ALPENA — Flag-draped caskets lined a wall on Tuesday as squads of police officers maneuvered rifles in synchronized drills that they may someday perform at the funeral of an officer killed in the line of duty.
The APlex this week hosts an annual honor guard training hosted by the Sheriff’s and Municipal Memorial Assistance Response Team, or SMMART.
Held locally since 2011, the training prepares a class of up to 60 police, firefighters, or other first responders learning or refreshing skills in paying honor to a fallen officer.
In Michigan, 620 police officers have died in the line of duty. Half of those were killed by gunfire, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page website.
Three Michigan police officers have died in 2021, one from gunfire and two from COVID-19.
Planners for this year’s training had enough applicants that they almost could have made two classes, according to Dan Foley, who spends nine months planning the annual event.
On Monday, leaders of six 10-person squads demonstrated ceremonial rifle handling, teaching an intricate 17-count maneuver the trainees had to not only memorize, but also learn to perform in perfect synchronization with their squad.
Trainers also taught marching in formation, a task more challenging than trainees expect as long-legged male officers and petite female officers try to stay in step.
“They’re still getting their “left, right, left” down,” Foley said. “It’s like teaching a baby to walk.”
On Tuesday, trainees had to demonstrate what they had learned.
“Don’t go so fast,” one instructor told his squad. “You’re going to wind up dropping your rifle and hitting yourself in the head.”
Pressure ramps up as the week progresses and trainees learn how to stand guard over a casket or carry it from a hearse into a church — a task that, someday, may be all the heavier when the casket holds a colleague.
Officers need to learn to perform the routines in the public eye with dignity and respect, never betraying through sigh or eye roll that anyone has made a mistake, Foley said.
“There’s a strength in that stoic appearance,” the trainer said. “We can have emotion, but we can’t show it. It doesn’t do any good when the honor guard is standing there crying at the funeral.”
When the school took place downstate, officers from southern counties would leave during the week to attend to other obligations.
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In Northeast Michigan, “you’re not going back to let your dog out,” said Foley, lauding Alpena as a welcoming and beautiful location where trainees can focus on the seriousness of what they learn.
Six empty caskets stood in a row in the APlex ballroom as trainees practiced their maneuvers. The week’s work challenges trainees, but the caskets make it real, Foley said.
“It’s a somber reminder of a huge sacrifice and a tragic loss,” Foley said.
The exercises become real as trainees on Thursday hear from a panel of family members of officers killed in the line of duty, talking about their loved ones and how they died.
On Friday, trainees conduct a full military funeral at a local church, complete with clergy, funeral director, and funeral procession, putting to use everything learned during the week.
The guests of honor at the funeral will be the actual family of an officer killed in the line of duty.
“It’s truly moving” to bring honor to a fallen officer and their family, Foley said, and “to hopefully, even for just a moment, make them look out and temper their grief with awe.”