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Sailor reflects on time serving on Navy Ceremonial Guard in DC

Sailors assigned to the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard carry the remains of Petty Officer 3rd Class Howard P. Brisbane, who was killed in action during the World War II Battle of Tarawa Atoll.

RICKY GUZMAN/U.S. NAVY

By ANTHONY SANDSTROM | The Pueblo Chieftain | Published: July 17, 2019

PUEBLO, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Never in a million years did Dain Rojas think he would be a hands-on part of American history.

On December 5, 2018, Rojas, a 2018 graduate of Pueblo West High School, donned his U.S. Navy uniform, holding a bayonet in a marching platoon at the historic state funeral for former President George H. W. Bush in Washington, D.C.

"It was a great honor to be part of something historic," Rojas said. "It was wild. You see all of the people you see on the news, President(s) George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all of those people you never thought you'd be able to see. It was a crazy feeling for sure."

Bush's funeral was one of the first assignments for Rojas, who joined the U.S. Navy out of high school and won a prestigious appointment to the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard. He is currently one of about 200 navy personnel in the Ceremonial Guard, which is responsible for the performance of public duties on behalf of the Navy.

The Ceremonial Guard is usually on hand for solemn occasions like funerals, marching, serving as pallbearers, or conducting 21-gun salutes.

In Rojas' case, he is on hand for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery almost daily. It's part of his two-year mission with the unit, starting the first phase of his Naval career.

Looking the part

It's probably more accurate to say that Rojas didn't pick the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard, it picked him.

When he was in boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill., he took part in an interview being conducted by the Ceremonial Guard as it sought recruits into its unit.

In a way, it was equal parts Hollywood casting call and a military appointment, Rojas said, as the Ceremonial Guard is all about the image it portrays during solemn occasions in reverence to the nation and its institutions.

"There was a certain look that they like," Rojas said. "You can't be too short, or you can't have too much acne, things like that."

Rojas had that look, and his demeanor was up to snuff, too, he said.

"In the interview, they as you what you do with your free time, what sports you played, things like that," Rojas said, "but they also asked how I handled stressful situations, and how I handled death since we were going to be around funerals a lot."

Of the 1,200 that graduated from Great Lakes, he was the only one selected for the Ceremonial Guard.

"Being one of only 1,200," Rojas said, "was a huge honor."

Wanted 'on set'

The United States Military is filled with jargon terms and abbreviations for nearly everything. There's a lingo that comes with being in the military.

That lingo still exists in the Ceremonial Guard, but it also borrows showbusiness lingo, as well.

"On a normal day, we're usually 'on set' as part of a 'set team.'"

The "set" is the funeral itself at Arlington National Cemetery. There, Rojas and his comrades – the "set team" – execute the solemn duties of a funeral, showing reverence for the veteran being memorialized by being perfect in their presentation.

Rojas' role on the team is with the firing party. They conduct the 21-gun salutes that are indicative of military funerals, rendering final military honors.

To get into that role, Rojas had to work for it, taking part in 10 weeks of exhaustive, detail-oriented training before graduating to funerals.

In his case, he had to master the duties of the firing party, including firing perfect volleys, passing uniform inspection, handling ammunition and servicing a rifle, among others.

"You want to show them that you know what you're doing," Rojas said, "before they allow you to do funerals and do ceremonies in front of people."

No matter the training, he was scared during his first ceremony.

"I didn't want to mess up," he said, "or do something wrong. You want to look good for the family so they could have a good experience."

More than just funerals

Rojas doesn't ask for much in his duties with the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard. But he does want to be able to hold the Colorado flag.

The Ceremonial Guard regularly conducts a ceremony called "States and Territories" where guardsmen hold a flag for ceremonies at the White House. He was on hand when Irish President Michael D. Higgins visited the White House.

The flag Rojas was holding was not the Colorado flag, unfortunately. And, he hasn't been able to get his hands on the Colorado flag during other ceremonies at The Pentagon.

"Every time, I try to get the Colorado flag," Rojas said. "But it goes from tallest to shortest, and I always end up on the shorter side."

On Independence Day, Rojas was part of the firing party that conducted a 21-gun salute from the Washington Navy Yard, located about three miles from the U.S. Capitol Building. It was one of several such ceremonies from different branches throughout the day's festivities.

"We did ours on the waterfront," Rojas said, who handled the loading duties as part of that team. "We started at 12 p.m., we fired a round each minute for 21 minutes."

It's been a wild ride, and as June 20, he was one year through his two-year appointment. After his mission is done, he plans on working toward his original goal in the Navy, which is to be an avionics technician.

Until that time comes, though, Rojas is going to have the time of his life.

"It's definitely something I'm going to tell my kids and their kids," Rojas said. "We're basically like the 1% of the 1%, and not a lot of people get to experience it. It's a really huge honor for me to be able to be here."

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©2019 The Pueblo Chieftain (Pueblo, Colo.)
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