HILO — When the body of President George H.W. Bush was escorted into St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston for his funeral on Wednesday, a 25-year-old Hilo native was one of eight military casket bearers.
Airman Keola Waiau is a member of the U.S. Navy’s elite Ceremonial Guard and was informed Nov. 30 of his selection for the prestigious honor of carrying the casket of the 41st president, whose term in office ended about 2 1/2 months before Waiau was born in 1993.
“I was honored when I got the call, and was alerted that I had a few hours to be on a plane to Texas,” Waiau said Thursday. “There was a whirlwind of emotions. I was ready, but I was nervous at the same time.
“We not only represent ourselves and our families and, of course, where we’re from, but we also represent the entire Navy — and obviously, the whole world is watching. We’re pretty much in the public eye the entire time. We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing our absolute best to represent the Navy in the best way possible.”
Waiau also escorted Bush’s casket after Thursday’s private memorial service to the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, where the late president was laid to rest at his presidential library.
Waiau, a 2011 graduate of Kamehameha Schools-Hawaii who attended the University of Hawaii at Hilo, joined the Navy in 2016 and was chosen to join the Ceremonial Guard, which is stationed in Washington, D.C., while in boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes in suburban Chicago.
“Being cast as a casket bearer, our main assignment is to work out of Arlington National Cemetery, Monday through Friday. We handle three to five funerals a day, five days a week,” Waiau said. “And when we’re not doing that, we’re handling any other special events in the Washington capital area, such as when foreign dignitaries come to visit the White House, 9/11 memorials. We do a lot of parades in the Washington, D.C., area.”
Waiau also served as a casket bearer at the funeral earlier this year of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who, like Bush, was a Navy aviator and war hero who was shot down by enemy gunfire.
“I was also lucky enough to be one of the two sailors who folded his flag … ,” Waiau said.
Waiau is wrapping up his service in the Ceremonial Guard, which is a two-year assignment. He’ll be reassigned to aviation technician training in Florida next month.
Waiau’s father said he’s extremely proud of his son’s service.
“At first, I didn’t really know what the Ceremonial Guard was when he first entered it, but upon further research, I realized the importance of what they do in Washington, D.C., when they greet heads of state and they bury important people at Arlington (National) Cemetery,” Kenneth Waiau said. “So the scope of what he does didn’t really dawn on me until he was in it.”
Hawaii Island also was represented as the motorcade carrying the late president’s casket arrived Monday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
State Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who represents the sprawling 4th district — which includes Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Waimea, Waikoloa and part of Kona — is in the nation’s capital for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Capitol Forum 2018. She was present at the solemn occasion.
“What inspired me to attend, along with many residents and tourists … is to pay my respects and gratitude for his years as president,” Inouye said. “I had the privilege of being in attendance to hear his State of the Union address in 1991.”
Inouye was the newly elected Big Island mayor at the time and was invited to attend Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress by the late Hawaii congresswoman Patsy Mink.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.