Forestry’s new Honor Guard pays tribute to those who have served
If you’ve attended a state ceremony or memorial recently, you may have noticed a new addition to the event: a group of state foresters in dress uniform, standing tall and solemnly bearing the flags of the United States and West Virginia as well as a Pulaski axe — a tool for fighting wildfires.
This is the Forestry Honor Guard, established in January 2019.
The Honor Guard’s purpose echoes that of a military color guard: to honor the agency’s tradition and pay tribute to those serving, both past and present. You might see these men and women marching in a parade, paying respects at a funeral, or attending other formal ceremonies involving the West Virginia Division of Forestry.
Forester Jon Wilson said the inspiration for the formation of the Honor Guard came from two events he attended while on duty.
Tyler County Firefighter
The first event occurred in November 2016, when beloved and longtime volunteer fireman Gary Patterson passed away unexpectedly. Wilson and Patterson became close during the numerous emergency response incidents they worked together. As a result, Tyler County’s fire departments asked Wilson to carry Patterson’s fireman’s helmet in the funeral procession.
“This event had a profound impact on me personally because of how I felt about the man who was in that flag-draped casket. It was a great honor to be asked to have such an important part in this fireman’s final goodbye,” Wilson said.
As Wilson stood side by side with other firefighters with whom he’d fought many fires, the 911 dispatcher gave the final radio call for Alma Fire Unit 111. And that’s when he was inspired to do more to honor those who have assisted with wildland fire duties.
“At the time I really didn’t have an Honor Guard in mind, just maybe a group of us that would make sure to attend all fireman funerals.”
Several hundred people gathered to honor fallen firefighter Brent Witham at the Missoula Airport in Montana on Aug. 7, 2017 as he began his journey home to California. U.S. Forest Service photo.
Montana Wildfire Crew
The second event occurred in July 2017, when Forestry’s western wildfire crew was dispatched to Missoula, Mont., to assist with the numerous wildfires in the area. As Wilson’s crew battled the Sunrise Fire, wildland firefighter Brent Witham was killed in the line of duty on a nearby fire.
The day Wilson’s crew was scheduled to fly out of Missoula was the day Witham’s remains were being returned to California.
“We were asked to recognize the funeral procession and see the flight off that would be taking Mr. Witham home. There were many crews from across the country present for this procession and we all saluted as he passed by,” Wilson said.
The U.S. Forest Service Honor Guard transferred the casket from the hearse and bagpipers played “Amazing Grace” as they loaded the fallen firefighter on the Sherpa airplane. Wilson was moved by the reverential gesture.
“These two events combined gave me the desire to see the West Virginia Division of Forestry form its own Honor Guard,” he said.
Honor Guard Members
Wilson mentioned the idea to Forestry Director Barry Cook, who agreed and authorized the Division to form the Honor Guard. They are:
Mary C. Murdock State Lands Forester
Jesse L. King Forester
Steven E. Harouff GIS Specialist
Jason R. Nelson Fire Warden
Craig A. Elswick Forester
H. Tony Evans Assistant Regional Forester
Michael I. Dolin Forester
Charlie F. Spencer Forester
Brenton D. Parks Fire Warden
L. Rudy Williams Regional Forester
Jon T. Wilson Forester
Forestry Day at the State Capitol
If you want to see the Honor Guard in action and learn more about the duties of the West Virginia Division of Forestry, visit the West Virginia State Capitol on Feb. 11 for Forestry Day at the Legislature. The Honor Guard is scheduled to present colors at the event.