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Michigan Department of Corrections Honor Guard celebrates 30 years of service

In March 1987, the Michigan Department of Corrections was reeling from the death of Josephine McCallum, a young corrections officer who was murdered at the hands of a prisoner. Department leaders wanted to show the highest respect for her life and sacrifice protecting Michigan’s citizens. They tapped an inspector with military experience to create a paramilitary-style unit that would represent the department during her service. “I said I really wanted to do it and the department really needs that,” said Bruce Curtis, who was tasked with developing the unit that would lead to the Michigan Department of Corrections’ Honor Guard. Thirty years later, the honor guard has included nearly 100 members. In three decades they have provided a stoic calm at hundreds of funerals and have represented the department at hundreds more ceremonies and parades. “It’s a tremendous privilege to be part of something that gets to serve in the way we do,” said John Cordell, current commander of the MDOC Honor Guard. “We’re ambassadors of the department. When we put that uniform on it means something very special.” Early Days When MDOC leaders asked Curtis to establish a unit for McCallum’s funeral, he went to the corrections officer academy and selected a group of young recruits who would have less than a week to train before the service. Their presence at the memorial service was moving. As a result, then-MDOC Director Robert Brown, Jr. decided the department needed a standing honor guard and tasked Curtis with organizing a unit that included members from across the state and across administrations. “What we wanted in the honor guard was a picture of what the department was like,” said Curtis, who retired in 2016 as assistant deputy director for the Correctional Facilities Administration and was the honor guard’s first commander. He and William Ray, then an inspector at Carson City Correctional Facility, interviewed 80 department employees who were recommended by their wardens, supervisors and shift commanders. The honor guard’s founding members included Linda Jackson, Crystal Richardson, Diana Hayes, Gloria Louder, Willis Chapman, Elizabeth Sharrer, Joseph Martin, William Irvin, Henry Parker, Renay Gardner, John Sura, Kimberly McNally, Dale Ninko, Herman Eleby, Roxann Hill, Robert McConnell, Stanley White, Jeff Stevens, Michael Heath, William Luetzow, James Lyon, Randy Bertram, Jim Usitalo and Harold White. “I took it as a huge responsibility,” said Willis Chapman, acting warden of Thumb Correctional Facility, who was a founding member and former commander of the honor guard. “I knew that for many people it was their first encounter with someone from the department of corrections. We wanted them to know we take pride in our work and we are caring, giving and will support each other.” Curtis said when he interviewed candidates for the new honor guard, he wasn’t looking for military experience or marching abilities, he was looking for compassion and dedication. Those traits were crucial for representing the department at public events, and more importantly, for honoring fallen officers and supporting their families. Honoring the Fallen Less than a year after the unit was created, members prepared to pay tribute to another officer killed in the line of duty – Jack Budd. “It brought a chilling reality that you’re in a line of work where you could lose your life,” said Chapman, who had joined the department two years earlier and was an officer at Western Wayne Correctional Facility. “It was surreal.” Every loss is difficult, but being in a position to support the families of fallen officers and show respect for their sacrifice is one of the most meaningful parts of serving with the honor guard, members said. “It’s very humbling to be put in a position to remember those who were lost in the line of duty,” said honor guard member Kirk Downs, a corporal at the Special Alternative Incarceration Facility. “Sometimes people look at this job and they don’t realize how tough it is and how dangerous it is.” The honor guard completed 48 details in 2017. Half of those were funerals, including the service for Candice Dunn, an Oakland County probation agent who was killed in a car accident the same night she was honored as the department’s Agent of the Year. The unit also attended services for correctional employees killed in Delaware, Georgia and North Carolina. Saying goodbye to fallen staff is one of the toughest, but most important roles of the honor guard, Cordell said. “It’s more difficult 20 years later than when I started,” Cordell said. “You’re personally invested in service to these people. It takes a toll, but I wouldn’t trade that. For the families, it means so much to have us there.” Moving Forward Members of the honor guard know how important it is to be a positive representative of the department for their colleagues, many of whom work behind the walls of correctional facilities and away from public view. Christianna Borst, a member of the honor guard and lieutenant at Lakeland Correctional Facility, said people often approach her and other members at public events to talk about the department. “We get asked questions all the time,” Borst said. “Usually the response is with a smile and ends with a handshake.” But being part of the honor guard also requires much personal sacrifice, along with the support of family members and department leaders. Members volunteer their time to attend funerals and other ceremonies and must be ready at a moment’s notice, said Parole Board member Sonia Warchock, a former member of the honor guard who served as its first female commander. “We were able to be that unit that went out there representing the department in the most positive way during some of the most negative times and showing how much heart, how much integrity and how much people of the department were willing to give voluntarily,” Warchock said. Honor guard members said though they aim to complete each detail flawlessly, they are often their own toughest critics and work to continuously improve. For Curtis, seeing the honor guard march through the decades gives him a sense of pride. “The honor guard has been so much a part of my life,” Curtis said. “I watched it evolve. It has always been very important to me. Whenever I see them perform, I’m very proud of them.”