I suppose it’s appropriate that I spent Memorial Day weekend as part of a funeral detail.
Last Thursday there was a flurry of activity at the armory: phones were ringing and people were running around, obviously concerned. Usually these activities don’t concern me, but this time it was different. SSG K came to my desk and said, “Get your Class A’s ready and be at the Stillwater armory at 0800 tomorrow.” A soldier from the brigade had been injured in an accident just after his mobilization, and had a leg amputation. His recovery had been going well, after almost a year of therapy – but then he died suddenly, apparently from a blood clot. He was being buried with full military honors, and there was a last minute scramble to assemble a detail.
Many viewed the tasking with trepidation, but I looked forward to it, in a way; it was an honor to perform such a quintessential part of military life. As Mrs. Melobi said, it seems like something soldiers should be doing, rather than sitting at a desk wearing ACUs.
We spent Friday practicing for what is called the “honorable transfer of remains” – the procedure where the flag-draped casket is removed from the transport aircraft and placed into the hearse for movement to the funeral home. There were seven of us on this particular detail; six to lift the casket and one as the officer-in-charge (OIC). The practice session made the event seem rather abstract, because of the many small steps involved and the fact that we had an empty casket with which to practice. The casket therefore became an object to be managed; the fact that there would be the body of a soldier inside of it when we went planeside didn’t really occur to me.
The aircraft carrying the soldier’s body was to arrive on Sunday on an NWA flight. The military escort and the soldier’s parents would be on board – along with a hundred or so other passengers, none of whom would be allowed to deplane until the transfer of remains had occurred. As I left to meet with the rest of the detail, Mrs. Melobi said, “Well…have an appropriate time.” Her point was well-taken: what kind of time was I supposed to have? Most Army events are accompanied by a generous helping of joviality, irreverence, and juvenile behavior, but this situation was different. But neither could we sit in glum silence during our entire mission.
As it turned out, we were mostly quiet on the van ride to the airport. On the way, we drove past Fort Snelling National Cemetery, the even rows of white headstones flashing by, stretching as far as I could see. All I could think was, “and now, another one.”
We waited at the fire station for the aircraft to land, along with a group of family members and the brigade commander. The situation was still abstract to me; it wasn’t until we piled back into the van to drive out to the gate that I fully realized what we were about to do. A police car led the way, lights blazing, and as we rolled alongside the runway, I looked ahead and saw the hearse. My heart jumped into my throat as I thought, “we’re going to unload a dead soldier into that vehicle in a few minutes.” We came out alongside the aircraft, and the ground workers just stared at our convoy as we slowly passed. One worker was standing on top of the terminal building, and stopped what he was doing and folded his hands in front of him, watching us dismount and form up.
I don’t remember if the tarmac was loud or not; all the nearby aircraft had stopped their engines, but I must’ve been suffering from stress-induced auditory exclusion because I don’t remember any sounds. The family was standing off to our left, and they watched as MSG Nuke and another soldier climbed into the cargo hold of the jet to remove the packing material around the casket, and to turn the casket so it would travel feet first. A couple of the family members were holding up digital cameras and snapping pictures, like tourists, and it seemed oddly disturbing to me, as if it was somehow dishonorable. Maybe it just seemed voyeuristic.
As the casket descended from the cargo hold, our detail approached. Facing each other, we lifted the casket, then turned and marched the few feet to the hearse. Facing inwards again, the OIC pushed the casket into the hearse. We saluted silently for a few seconds, then turned and marched back to our van. The whole event lasted only a few minutes, and seemed oddly anticlimactic. We then followed the hearse back to the funeral home, about a forty-five minute drive.
At the funeral home, we carried the casket from the hearse to a wheeled stand inside the building, then wheeled it into the viewing area. Once there, the chaplain said a few words, and then we began to fold the flag that was atop the casket, so the family could view the body. The flag folding was a last-minute addition, and we only had a few minutes to practice it beforehand, but we thought we had a pretty good handle on it. But when the OIC began folding, there was something wrong. Out of the corner of my eye (I was in the middle) I could see that the stars were facing down – and they should always be up when folding the flag. Just then, MSG Nuke stepped in and said in his best firm, yet quiet voice: “Lieutenant, unfold that flag.” In my head, I crapped my pants – how were we going to get out of this one? Nuke walked us through a complicated procedure that somehow ended up with the stars up, as they should have been, and the OIC folded the flag and all was well.
Tuesday was spent training for the internment ceremony at Fort Snelling. It was much the same drill as the honorable transfer of remains, except that the flag folding was completely different. The rifle squad trained as well, since there would be a full seven-man firing detail at the ceremony. Tuesday night was the wake, and our job there was to provide a sentry to stand at attention next to the casket for the duration of the event. We took fifteen minute shifts. The casket was open, and I could see the soldier’s face out of the corner of my eye, but he seemed unreal, like a mannequin. I was concerned that a family member might approach me and hurl themselves upon me, or try to hug me, or something, but nothing of the sort happened. The event was fairly low-key, which made it much easier.
The soldier’s former squad leader took the last sentry shift, after most of the guests had left the funeral home. The visitation room was mostly empty, so the staff sergeant stood alone, his eyes downcast and hidden by the black brim of his Stetson, white gloved hands clenched at his sides, swallowing hard to hold back his tears.
[To be continued…]