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An Honor Guard is Revitalized

City's fire department has full contingent with new uniforms.

Anyone near the reviewing stand at last Saturday's St. Patrick's Day parade had a prime view of Alexandria Fire Department's reconstituted Honor Guard Drill Team and their close order drill rifle demonstration.

Dressed in new ceremonial uniforms, a contingent of the upgraded 20 member team performed a series of close order drill marches accompanied by precision rifle maneuvers. Highlighting the display of rifle agility was Firefighter Steve Richmond, a former member of the U.S. Army Old Guard, 3rd Infantry, ceremonial drill team during his military service.

Although the Honor Guard has been a part of the department since the early 70's, "We wanted to upgrade it by increasing the numbers as well as the equipment and uniforms," said Battalion Chief Chet Helms, the leader of the group.

"We also knew that if we were going to do precision close order drill with rifles we were going to need professional training," Helms explained. That's were Richmond and John Rule, another member of the Honor Guard, came in.

Both had been members of The Old Guard. They joined the department about 18 months ago after leaving the military. "The Old Guard has performed on a regular basis at a variety ceremonies over many years," Richmond said. A contingent marched in Saturday's parade.

"Both are now teaching close order drill and how to perform with rifles," Helms said. The rifle performance team consists of 12 members out of the 20. "However, everyone is being cross trained to perform various functions," he said.

WHEN IT CAME to the new uniforms, that was a joint decision by Helms and Alexandria Fire Chief Gary Mesaris. They are dark blue, with a high collar and a bright red stripe down the outer pant leg. Each member's outfit is topped by a classic bell cap. The Chief's trousers have dual red stripes as well as markings on the coat sleeves.

"There have been a lot of members in the Honor Guard over the years," Deputy Chief James Gower explained. "It actually got started under Captain Robert Orr. He was the first leader."

Leadership was then taken over by Captain Michael Beckett, who is still an active member, according to Gower. "We became aware we had to become more knowledgeable in formal ceremonial matters when Captain Robert Blunt died while an active member of the department. We had to go to the Coast Guard to learn how to fold the flag properly in order to present it to his widow at the funeral," Gower acknowledged.

Prior to its rejuvenation, the unit had dwindled to a membership of only six or eight, according to Helms. "We have also added a bugler to our ranks," he SAID. "We have been using a recording at ceremonies because we did not have a formal bugler."

That role is now being fulfilled by Firefighter 2 Matthew Craig. He is not only a firefighter but also a formally trained musician, having received his bachelors degree in music education in 1999 from James Madison University.

"I was studying music but I also started volunteering with the fire department in Harrisonburg as a way to get off campus," Craig SAID. "That's when I got hooked on firefighting."

HIS ACTUAL instrument of formal training is the trombone. In addition to firefighting, Craig teaches music part time at West Springfield High School as well as giving drill and drum major instructions to the high school band.

A Woodbridge resident, Craig has been a member of the city fire department for three years. "Although my primary role will be as a bugler, I am cross training to perform other roles with the Honor Guard," he said.

Craig also composed a symphony honoring the fallen of 9/11. It was performed at Northern Virginia Community College's Schlesinger Concert Hall last year.

The first local public exposure of the new Honor Guard Drill Team occurred during Alexandria's George Washington Birthday Parade. "The guys who have been a part of the Guard over the years have done a terrific job. But we decided the unit needed to be upgraded so we could bring even greater dignity to ceremonial occasions as well other events," Helms said.