When Sgt. Mauricio Ceja, Honor Guard team leader for Merced County, gives full military honors to fallen service members, he does it with great pride.
Ceja leads an eight-person detail team that provides full military honors at San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, Santa Nella.
Military honors consist of the folding and presenting of the U.S. flag to the next of kin and the playing of taps on a bugle.
Ceja’s team consists of three guards who fire rifles and their party commander, those who fold and present the flag, and a non-commissioned officer in charge of the ceremony.
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“I wear the uniform proud,” Ceja said, “on behalf of the soldiers who passed away, because I know they once wore the same uniform I once wore.”
The team is made up of volunteer soldiers who provide this service almost every day, sometimes several times a day.
“They’re not actually on any kind of orders,” Ceja said about his team. “They come out on their own time when they are able to.”
Some Honor Guard members have either civilian jobs or are attending college, but feel a call of duty to take part in the ceremony.
“I enjoy it,” Ceja said. “I want to have the family leave with the last impression of what the deceased once were, which is serve into a branch that’s something bigger than them. In a sense, it’s like when somebody gives birth or gets married, they give them a last impression of what they once were.”
Ceja said the ceremony is not just a job.
“This is a family member,” he said, “one of your battle buddies. If we were in the same time frame, he would have been my battle buddy.”
He also said he takes great pride in his teammates and how they conduct the ceremony.
“If there’s any issues with their uniforms, or any personal things happening, I like to address them,” he said, “and have a good ceremony for every service that I do.”
His message to his teammates is that since this is the final salute rendered to a fallen comrade, every single one is special.
“Even if there’s only one person in the service or 100 people in the service,” he said, “it doesn’t matter, we strive for perfection.”
First Sgt. Rudy Amarillas, the non-commissioned officer in the team, has already performed more than 1,100 services. He’s been in the military for 37 years. He also said it’s an honor and privilege to serve.
Specialist Javier Villanueva agreed.
“Not a lot of people can say they do this on a daily basis,” Villanueva said. “It’s enjoyable and it’s an honor because we are actually providing the services for the fallen.”
The job is something they all take seriously, they said.
“We do feel this in our heart,” Amarillas said. “We try to execute as professional as we can because this is something that the veteran and his family deserve.”
Ceja said after enlisting in the Army National Guard, it’s up to the soldier how they serve their time, and this job – presenting military honors – is just one of many to choose from.
“We can choose to go to college; we can choose to get a full-time job, part-time job, so it’s basically on the actual soldier how he wants to pave his life,” Ceja said.
Amarillas said he prefers to present military honors over working a civilian job.
“Here, I get a self-satisfaction,” he said. “It’s more personal.
Also, on the personal level, Amarillas said, is the camaraderie the team has for each other.
“It’s a brotherhood within a brotherhood,” he said.