“Remember guys, this is for the families. Honor their Soldier,” said Staff Sgt. Hector Valadez, as he called his casket team to attention before performing a dignified transfer.
Valadez is assigned to the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), the Army’s only active duty unit on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to receive the remains of service members fallen in Iraq or Afghanistan at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
“This is the first time the remains arrive in country, and the families are usually there watching,” said Valadez. “I really get nervous right before the missions, because I want everything to go perfect for the families.”
It is Valadez’s responsibility to ensure his team is always ready and waiting to perform any mission at any time.
“It is truly an honor to serve in this capacity, and it is my job to make sure that my guys do their part,” said Valadez.
The entire transfer is over within minutes, but its impact can affect the family forever.
During the ceremony, Valadez follows the team, ensuring all their movements are correct and precise. He is also the last person to touch the flag-draped casket after it is placed in the vehicle, securing it for transport.
“We provide the best teams for this sacred and dignified mission,” said Valadez.
Teams earn the privilege to perform the ceremony by being tested on how well they approach, carry and transfer a weighted casket. Only teams that have completed the evaluation and have been certified are authorized to conduct actual missions.
“My guys train daily for hours to ensure things go as smoothly as possible,” said Valadez. “I have to ensure that every casket team is fully trained and certified to be able to perform a dignified transfer.”
Since his arrival to The Old Guard in February, he has already instilled in his men a profound reverence for their mission.
“(Valadez) really brings energy, focus and a new sense of pride to the teams,” said Sgt. Douglas Campbell, a member of Valadez’s casket team, who’s completed more than 80 dignified transfers.
“What other job is more important than what we do? That is why it is so honorable,” Campbell said. After a deep breath he continued, “I am really humbled every time.”
Each ceremony ends with the transfer vehicle departing, leaving the Soldiers and families to contemplate the sacrifice the fallen have made. Valadez knows the price of freedom, and said he is reminded of those he has lost during these somber times.
“It can get hard sometimes not only for the families, but also for these Soldiers who are transferring a battle buddy,” he said. “During one of my deployments, we lost a few guys. It was really hard on everyone. Sometimes when I am out here, I think of them and their ultimate sacrifice.”