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TDCJ honor guard teams salute honorable service of fellow officers

For Region I Training Sgt. Bobby Scott, life is all about honor and respect. And so is the end of life.

That’s why Scott proudly serves as commander of the Region I honor guard, a small team of officers who on behalf of the agency, salute the honorable service of their fellow officers as they are laid to rest.

Honor Guard marching past correctional officers standing at attention.
The Region III honor guard commanded by Training Capt. Wesley Hemphill participated in funeral services for slain TDCJ correctional officer Susan Canfield in September.

Photos by David Nunnelee

In late September, he and his team members were among those who saluted the service of slain Wynne Unit field officer Susan Canfield in Huntsville.

“It was a sad occasion, but I got a warm feeling inside,” Scott said about Canfield’s funeral services. “I had a feeling of mourning, but I also had a good feeling that we were there to represent her.”

A second TDCJ honor guard team led by Region III Training Capt. Wesley Hemphill carried the colors at Canfield’s funeral. A third team representing Region IV is based in Beeville, and a fourth is attached to the Travis County correctional center in Austin.

Scott, whose two brothers served in the U.S. Army, enlisted in the first honor guard team ever formed within TDCJ. It was organized about 10 years ago at the Holliday Transfer Facility in Huntsville by Lt. Minor Swackhammer, a U.S. Army veteran, who has since retired. The agency’s all-volunteer teams now fall under the authority of regional directors within the Correctional Institutions Division.

“I wanted to be part of a group that is honorable,” Scott said. “I wanted to be part of something that shows respect to the family of the deceased. I wanted to be part of something that represents the state in a positive way.”

Scott took command of the Region I team about six years ago and leads its nine members in practice drills once a month. He said honor guard members must be able to work a rifle, perform facing movements, march in formation, and stand for long periods of time without wavering. He said working the rifle, which includes presenting and shouldering the weapon from the ground, is probably the most difficult maneuver to master.

“It depends on the individual,” Scott said about the time it takes to fully train a prospective member. “Some learn faster than others.”

In October, the honor guard teams from Huntsville and Rosharon took part in an honor guard training camp hosted by the Houston Police Department (HPD). Over three days at the HPD Training Academy, seasoned instructors schooled members in the finer points of casket guard, flag carrying, the 21-gun salute, and flag folding and presentation.

“We’re pretty good at what we do, but there’s always room to learn,” Scott said.

Showing we care

Yolundra Dockins, a sergeant at the Ramsey Training Academy in Rosharon, had been with the Region III honor guard only four months at the time of the HPD training.

“When I first saw the honor guard, it touched me,” she said. “Being a part of it now is my way of giving something back to the families that lost loved ones, showing them that I care, and that we care as an agency.”

Capt. Wes Hemphill practicing saluting as trainer looks on.
Capt. Wes Hemphill, commander of TDCJ's Region III honor guard team, practices a salute while Houston Police Department Sgt. Larry Jaskolka looks on at left. Honor guard teams from Huntsville and Rosharon participated in a 3-day training camp held at the HPD Training Academy to refine their movements and learn new techniques.
Hemphill has devoted eight years to the Region III and Region IV honor guard teams.

“I do it for the people,” he said. “I think the officers in TDCJ need to have some type of recognition, and this is the ultimate. When someone passes away, we as an agency step forward to show them that we cared about them and the work that they did.”

Commitment required

To serve in the TDCJ honor guard, candidates must be in good standing at their units of assignment and carry themselves in a professional manner at all times. Once officers demonstrate their devotion to the group and its principals, Scott awards his members a distinctive patch to be sewn on their regular work uniforms.

“You’ve got to have a good attitude about the job, and you’ve got to be committed,” Scott said. “You’ve got to realize that you are part of a group that is all about honor. So once they have that honor guard patch on their uniform, they need to carry themselves in a professional manner.”

The uniform worn by honor guard members is provided by the state. Pieces include a felt Ranger hat, a yellow ascot, a dark blue jacket, a pair of white gloves, a black patent-leather belt, a dark blue pant with yellow stripes, and a pair of black patent-leather shoes. Scott said the eye-catching uniform is not designed to grab the spotlight, however.

“I always tell the team that it’s not about us,” he said. “When we go to a funeral, it’s never about us. That’s why we march in and get out. We’re there to show respect, nothing else.”

“We’re not the show, we’re the window dressing,” Hemphill added.

I get peace from it

At funerals, Scott said the two main duties of an honor guard team are to post the flags of the nation and state, and, later, to fire a 21-gun salute in tribute to the deceased. He said his team attends two funerals a month on average at the request of the families of officers, both active and retired, who have passed away. Honor guard teams may also participate in training academy graduation exercises, and they are a fixture of the public ceremony TDCJ holds each year to salute fallen peace and correctional officers from across the nation.

Donald Genwright, a sergeant at the Goree Unit in Huntsville and veteran of Desert Storm, has been part of the Region I honor guard the past four years.

“It gives me a sense of being part of something that’s special,” he said. “It gives me a chance to do something above and beyond my call of duty. Every chance I get, I go, because it’s for the families.”

Fellow team member Carmesha Hicks, a correctional officer at the Byrd Unit in Huntsville, said representing TDCJ at the funerals of fallen officers brings her tranquility.

“I get peace from it because you know that you did something good for the family,” she said. “It shows that we are all part of one. It represents that the deceased was part of a family, the TDCJ family.”

“For me, it’s just something that I get a good feeling out of,” added Hightower Unit Sgt. Sammie Valero, a member of the Region III honor guard the past two years and a former member in the U.S. Army honor guard. “And there’s a sense of camaraderie. It’s standing up for your colors, for the agency you work for, and the people that served with you.”

But TDCJ honor guard members also say that funerals can tug at their emotions. The services for Officer Canfield were especially difficult, they all said.

“It hit so close to home,” said Hicks, whose best friend served alongside Canfield as a field officer at Wynne. “We try to stay strong for the family, but it was hard.”

“Sometimes you can’t help but get teary-eyed,” Genwright added.

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