The very first funeral detail I was ever on, I wasn't ready for. The NCOIC came up to me and asked "Dave...... are your Class A's ready?" I answered yes, and he said "Good. You're leaving tomorrow".
And I left, my uniform prepped. I wasn't ready for it at all. I'd never done a funeral detail. I didn't know what was required. I didn't know much. But I learned.
I spend the next two days prepping for the funeral. Due to circumstances, the pall bearers doubled as the rifle team. So we carried the casket to it's place, then marched over to the rifles, fired the twenty-one gun salute, and then marched back to fold the flag. In retrospect, it helped me prepare for all the funerals I would do in the future. We practiced for longer than I care to remember until we carried the casket and marched to the rifles without a single verbal command. Once we had the rifles, it was READY! AIM! FIRE! READY! AIM! FIRE! READY! AIM! FIRE! Then we set the rifles back down and marched back to the casket. After that, all orders were given in a low voice.
Ready. Down. Up. Fold the flag.
The Deputy Commander of US Army South, a Brigadier General whose name I'm withholding presented the flag to the parents. The father, a retired Soldier himself, was struggling to hold himself together. The mother and the brother had started weeping long ago. You want to know the hardest part of being in the funeral detail? Holding yourself together when the entire family is being ripped apart with grief. We managed to do it, god only knows how. When we first arrived, the casket was being moved from the airplane to the hearse. I almost lost it right then, but it wasn't the parents that got to me. I expected their grief, and was prepared for it. No, what got to me the most was this - as the mother was collapsed, crying on the coffin, as the father was doing his best to comfort his wife and contain his grief, the brother was behind them both, with tears streaming down his face.
And that's the most he showed. He had his hands on his mothers shoulder, and he was leaning against his father, and he was crying hard but without making a single sound. He had tears streaming down his face, and you could see that he was struggling not to break. Struggling, and losing that struggle, as he tried to deal with the fact that his brother was dead, only not just dead but dead so horribly that it would be a closed casket funeral, and we only had to carry half the weight of a normal body. And he was trying to comfort his mother and his father as they wept, and still grieve himself.
I was locked up at the position of present arms, heels together, fingers to my eyebrow, and he was directly in front of me. And as I watched him grieve and simultaneously try to comfort his parents, I almost lost it. I had a single tear roll down my face as I watched this family deal with the death of their son and brother, and the only thing that kept me from losing it was the simple fact that this Soldier deserved better than to have some pansy-assed dipshit lose it while escorting him to his final resting place. I kept that in mind while the hearse was loaded. It was easier once the actual funeral started, because it's a lot more formal. You don't have the raw, primal displays of grief that you do when you first off-load the casket. But it's still hard. The mother cried the entire time, and the father...... the father, how can I explain this - the father was a retired Warrant Officer in the US Army. Once he had retired, he joined a volunteer organization who's entire focus and function was to help the families of Soldiers who had been killed in combat. I can't remember the name of his organization, all I remember is the fact that he was able to give us the instructions he wanted followed, and then he was pretty much broken from his pain. And the entire time I was doing this, my first funeral detail, the only thought I had in my head was "Don't you dare break. Don't you dare break down. You fucking wimp, you haven't gone through one tenth the pain these people have, don't you DARE FUCKING BREAK DOWN!"
But it's hard, when you're faced with the sheer open pain of a family who has just lost their son and their brother or their sister.
We managed to do it, that first time. I was lucky in that I had excellent leadership who helped guide me through the process. Shortly after that, I became the leader of the rifle team for funeral details. I've stood at Parade Rest for over an hour and a half for certain funerals. You never know what it's going to be like. I've had the mother grab hold of us and tell us tales of her son, to the point that we were doing footraces in the street with the Soldier's brother, because that's what they used to do as kids. And when you have a teenager who's just lost his brother in Afghanistan, and he asks you to race, what are you going to do? Say no? Hell no. You kick your shoes off and race him in the streets. The mother was drunk to high heaven, trying to kill her pain, and we spent hours and hours talking to her. By the time the night was up we all got maybe three to four hours of sleep, but it was worth it to make sure this mother knew that her son didn't die in vain.
For the record, her son was a medic in Afghanistan, and had saved the lives of too many people to count. A Sergeant from his unit escorted his body home, and we pretty much press-ganged him into the funeral detail. The thing I remember most about that funeral detail is that as we folded the flag and prepared to move away from the burial site, this Sergeant knelt down by the Soldier's little brother, and took off his jump wings, his Airborne insignia, and gave it to the Soldier's little brother, and said "These are the wings your brother wears. You keep them safe."
I don't think a single member of that funeral detail had dry eyes. And I'm crying as I type this now, and I'm not ashamed to admit it, remembering what happened.
I think I didn't know just how bad the funeral details were effecting me until I found out that my NCOIC was telling the command "Leave Dave alone. He's done enough." I can't remember how many funerals I've done. I just know that I never once, not fucking ONCE did I ever say no to one. The least I could do for my fellow Soldiers was make sure that they were remembered with respect and reverence. I stopped counting after about twenty. At one point I was doing one a week, sometimes two. And I made damn sure that those families knew that their loved ones were going to the great hereafter in proper style. Part of the reason I was picked to be the rife team leader was because I memorized the commands and didn't just say them, I barked them out so that the funeral would hear them from a football field away.
TEAM! ATTENTION! PORT, ARMS! HALF-RIGHT, FACE!
READY! *click* AIM! FIRE *BANG*
READY! *click* AIM! FIRE *BANG*
READY! *click* AIM! FIRE *BANG*
HALF LEFT, FACE! PRESENT, ARMS!
That was my job, and I'll be damned if anyone did it better than I did. Those Soldiers deserved no less. The families who wept and grieved deserved no less. If nothing else, they deserved to know that their loved ones died for something more than just politics, or something more that just the BS that gets presented day after day in the media. I had a mother grabbing my arms and crying and asking what her son died for, and I told her then, and I still believe it now - her son died a hero, saving the lives of his fellow Soldiers, laying down his life for them, all in an attempt to make this world a safer, better place.
I wish I could put the names of all the Soldiers I've served on this blog. I hate to say it, but I've done so many that I've forgotten half of them, and that fact makes me ashamed. I wish I could remember all of them, but my brain just doesn't hold that information and OPSEC stops me from naming the ones I do remember.
I said in the post below that I couldn't find a thing to write. That's not entirely true. I couldn't find a thing to write that would be appropriate for the people who I've saluted and respected on their final journey, and to be blunt this post doesn't do them justice. But it's the best I can do. And I hope that when I meet them on the other side, they shake my hand and say "Thank you. You gave me the respect I deserved."
I will try to do so until the day that I die. They deserve no less. And I ask you, anyone who reads this blog, to just take a moment to think about all the people who have died in the service of this country, and think "Thank you." One of the best, and most simple prayers I've ever heard, was from a guy named Pete who used to work at my building. He was a former alcoholic, an AA member, who did his best to pray on a daily basis. And he told me once in passing that sometimes the best he could do was "Good morning, God. It's Pete. Thank you." I think that's what our fallen heros need. "Good Morning. This is an American. Thank you."
I know I say that. How about you?