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By Staff Sgt. Elora J. McCutcheon
341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Nothing breaks the expansive silence but a low, over-exaggerated drawl of commands, rustling of flags, and perfectly synchronized click-click-click of metal heels as four uniformed guardsmen march to the front of a crowd.
Rifles are maneuvered by white-gloved hands and the U.S. flag remains the center of attention as a state flag lowers beside it for the presentation of the colors. The guardsmen’s uniforms feature epaulets, service caps and the silver cord, but no names.
Alongside her three teammates, the face of a 21-year-old New York native, shaded mostly by the brim of her cap, is cast in stoicism. In ceremonial uniform, she is no one.
Senior Airman Alaura Tapia-Caballero, one of the countless guardsmen who live by the honor guard mantra “Nameless and Selfless Service,” recently stepped out of the anonymity when she set herself apart for her dignitary service and was named 2022’s U.S. Air Force Honor Guardsman of the Year.
"It felt super surreal,” Tapia described of the day she found out about her win. “I never knew anybody who won this high, so [my supervisor] and I had to keep checking to make sure that I did win, because we were in denial.”
Tech. Sgt. Erik Roe, 341st Missile Wing Honor Guard program manager and Tapia’s supervisor, said Tapia’s win felt monumental because of the difference in operational tempo at Malmstrom. According to him, northern-tiered bases have a lower amount of details compared to southern bases, where more military veterans retire.
“It was good to see it wasn’t just the sheer number of details that a guardsman goes on that’s being looked at [to win],” he explained. “They didn’t view her as just a number; they were able to look at her as a whole package, as an Airman and as a guardsman. That’s amazing.”
Beyond her performance as a guardsman, the young Airman stood out when she temporarily took over as acting program manager for the honor guard, which was a master sergeant billet at the time.
Her duties included directly communicating with family members who called to request funerals and flawlessly upholding a database to be submitted to Congress. In this role, she quickly realized a strong sense of independence and accountability was required for the success of her team.
“For 57 days, she ran the honor guard just as any NCO could,” Roe said. “She showed she was able to handle herself in any situation that the honor guard could throw at her.”
Tapia’s ability to professionally and effectively manage the honor guard program was one of the biggest reasons she was initially submitted for the 341st Missile Wing’s Honor Guardsman of the Quarter, a local-level award. Once she won here, her package continued on a winning streak at 20th Air Force-, then Air Force Global Strike Command-, and finally the U.S. Air Force-level.
Even without a major award, Tapia said she cherished her time at the 341st MW Honor Guard because of the relationships she built and skills she developed.
“I was super brand new to the Air Force when I was selected, so I learned a lot just from communicating with the other members of my team,” she said. “We all got super close after doing a lot of long funerals and overnight stays [on TDY] together.”
Tapia recounted how the team worked together for countless hours, critiquing the smallest missteps or delays in timing. Their attention to detail and desire for perfection strengthened them both as individuals and as a unit.
To Tapia, being part of something bigger was the biggest reward.
“You might be the last face a family gets to see of the Air Force,” she said. “If you go out there and take pride in what you’re doing, you can be confident that they can go back and think, ‘The Air Force provided a beautiful service for my [spouse’s] death.
“My husband is also active duty, and I would always think, if I had to stand here and watch the honor guard give a flag to me, what would I want it to look like?”
Though Tapia’s tour in the guard at Malmstrom has ended, she says she grew substantially in a way that set her up for success in her primary duty as an aviation resource manager.
She still volunteers her time as a guardsman when she can, and she looks forward to the chance of doing it again at her next base.