Honor Guard Watches Over Firefighters

Brendan McDonough heads to his seat after reading a prayer at the service. Behind him is Flagstaff Honor Guard Commander Erik Caputo.
David Wallace, The Arizona Republic/Pool
July 11, 2013

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — There were five funerals Wednesday in Prescott, and there will be 19 in all for the men who died battling the Yarnell Hill Fire.

At each service there will be a special Honor Guard who will post the American flag and salute their fallen brother. They are a ceremonial guard, carefully chosen from among military, safety and law enforcement, to provide funeral honors for fallen comrades.

The tradition may seem like a formal gesture, but it's much more.

It's called "honor watch" and it began here the night that 19 of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshot crew members died. Prescott firefighters draped each body with an American flag and stayed with them on the hill all through the night until they were taken to the medical examiner’s office in Phoenix. And even then, Erik Caputo said no one left their side.

"The reason we do it is so that they're never alone," Caputo said. "This is a tough time for them even in the afterlife. They just left. They have nobody. Well, they've always got us."

Caputo, a firefighter and commander of the Flagstaff Honor Guard, explained each of the 19 men has been accompanied by an Honor Guard volunteer since their deaths. They typically take six-hour shifts so there is someone present 24/7.

As the procession of white hearses drove the 100 miles from Phoenix back to Prescott at the beginning of this week, the Honor Guard lined the street holding flags in the stifling desert heat. Inside each hearse Caputo said another Honor Guard member sat vigil.

"Even if you don't know them, it seems like when you guard them you know them when you're done with your tour," Caputo said. "It's an honor, it really is an honor to be in the Honor Guard. It's a privilege."

A couple days later at the memorial service in Prescott Valley the Honor Guard quietly marched, posted flags, turned and saluted.

Caputo had a special assignment: to escort the only survivor, Brendan McDonough. Caputo stood near McDonough, who with slumped shoulders read the Hot Shot's Prayer. 

"Lord, bless my hotshot crew, my family one and all. Thank you and I miss my brothers," McDonough told the crowd.

The Honor Guard presented each family with a flag and a bronzed Pulaski, the ax-like tool used to dig containment lines around wildfires. Caputo gave one to McDonough and made sure he made it through the emotional ceremony. And his job wasn't done there.

"I will check on Brendan," Caputo said. "I do have a lot of friends at Prescott Fire and I will make sure. And they will make sure that Brendan is looked after. He does not need it. But they will make sure if he needs anything he's got it."

Caputo estimated there were a thousand Honor Guard members from all over the world at Tuesday's service. He said even though they don't get paid, these are coveted roles. Caputo will now help bury 19 firefighters and support their families.

"We owe it to each other," Caputo said. "We owe it to our families who put up with what we do on a daily basis to send our brothers and our sisters to send them off right."

He humbly repeated what seems to be the guard motto: "It's an honor and it's a privilege."