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A changing of the guard for Hall County sheriff's honor unit

POSTED: December 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Lt. Neal Bagwell addresses the Hall County Sheriff's Color Guard as commander for the last time Tuesday afternoon before his retirement. He served 11 years in the guard, the past four as the unit's commander.

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Every 11 days on average, more than 170 times a year, Lt. Neal Bagwell donned the brown, full dress uniform of the Hall County Sheriff’s Honor Guard.

At funerals, at parades, at flag retirements and other ceremonial functions, the 20-member, all-volunteer unit under Bagwell’s command gave an air of dignity and decorum to each detail.

On Tuesday, after 11 years on the honor guard, the last four as commander, Bagwell took his well-deserved leave from the physically demanding and time-consuming job.

In an emotional change of command ceremony, Bagwell officially was relieved of his command by his successor, Sgt. Bonner Burton, with the exchange of a woven gold cord worn around the shoulder. Afterward, his appreciative troops presented him with a surprise gift: a flag they had flown over the storied U.S. Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., along with a letter of recognition from Marine Commandant Gen. James T. Conway.

"The last letter I got from the commandant was to welcome me to Parris Island," Bagwell, a Marine veteran, joked. "This one’s a little more joyous."

Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic cited the "tremendous changes" the honor guard has undergone on Bagwell’s watch. From the addition of a horse-drawn carriage for funerals to a daylong "guarding of the tomb" vigil honoring veterans, to winning national recognition at a competition in Washington, D.C., the unit has represented the agency well, Cronic said.

"There’s no way I can put into words how much you all have meant to us," Cronic said.

Bagwell credits his superiors with allowing the honor guard to grow as a unit.

"When I started with the honor guard, it was short sleeves and pistols," Bagwell said. "Now there’s not much more we could do, except ‘missing man’ flyovers."

The unit’s membership draws on all divisions of the sheriff’s office, from jail to uniform patrol to court services and investigations. Volunteers — many, but not all are ex-military — try out for the unit, which practices on average eight hours a month, on their own time.

Military bearing, alignment and spacing between honor guard members, handling of weapons and flags and coordination of movement are all drilled until nearly flawless. Last year, Hall County’s honor guard was rated third in the nation — second only to much larger law enforcement agencies in Nashville and Phoenix.

Bagwell acknowledged that there has been much sacrifice involved in the job, but said it has been worth it.

"There is a lot of physical discomfort, having to stand ramrod straight," Bagwell said. "There’s the weather to deal with. But the pride and satisfaction comes when families come up to us and say, ‘that was absolutely incredible.’ When they get emotional, we know we’ve honored them properly."

Burton now takes command of a unit that represents the sheriff’s office not just in Hall County, but in details across the state. He said Bagwell has prepared him well.

"They are some pretty big shoes to fill, but I’m excited about it," Burton said. "I’ve learned a lot about how to do it from him."



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