A body bearer‘s tale
Two of the four years I was in the service I was stationed at a U.S. Naval Station in Washington D.C. in the Navys Ceremonial Guard unit.
After three months of regular boot camp we had three more months of boot camp where we were instructed of our duties at the State Department, Pentagon, White House and Arlington National Cemetery. Over 90% of my time was spent practicing and being a body bearer for funerals at Arlington.
All movement of the six body bearers had to be in unison. We practiced folding burial flags hundreds of times. The perfect flag was four stars up, no red showing.
From 1969-1971 I was a body bearer in well over 1,000 funerals at Arlington. I witnessed families in pain where, unfortunately, our administration seems to have a more abstract view of these families‘ losses.
There is one constant from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, and now the Iraq War. Soldiers died and their families are left with a grief that changes their lives forever. Empty rhetoric and words of dubious sincerity will not help these families. In all war the pain is the same.
Most funerals at Arlington are conducted in a somber and dignified manner. Then there are others that are much more emotional and unpredictable.
These funerals are generally for service men killed in action. The families are distraught and in pain, almost zombie like.
In one funeral, we were carrying the casket out of the Arlington Chapel, down the stairs to a horse-drawn caisson when the widow dove onto the casket, screaming for her husband. All we could do was stop, try not to lose the casket and wait for our ushers and family members to remove this poor woman. We put the flag back and we continued through the service.
At the grave sites, six of us stand, holding the flag over the casket. There is the priest and family that encircle us. The first row of mourners is only a foot or two away from us (they are very close). You can hear them try to console those who cant be consoled. You see a boy sitting ramrod straight, trying to be brave for his father, but he seems to be melting around the edges. His sister has already melted into a lump of grief in her mothers lap.
One time during a service a little boy moved up next to me half under the flag with his hands on the casket talking to his daddy while unconsciously bumping my leg.
These kinds of funeral made focusing on our job more difficult. After the priest is finished he steps back, which is a signal for the firing squad to begin.
At the first volley most of the mourners jump, because it is quite loud. After the third volley Taps begins and we fold the flag. This is also when families know this is the end, the last time theyll be with their loved ones.
After the flag is folded the head body bearer gives the flag to an officer who in turn presents it to the widow or another member of the family.
While the officer gives the on behalf of a grateful nation speech the head body bearer gives a quiet command. We turn in unison and march slowly back to the bus to await the next funeral.
This current war has produced nearly 1,200 burial flags. Flags that will never wave on porch or pole. Flags that have become unwanted family heirlooms, with their four stars up, no red showing.
Robert Fullerton Levering