[Continued from 1 June]
The next day was the internment. We arrived early so we could check out the site and position ourselves appropriately. It was humid; within a few minutes, I was sweating in the white gloves and in the stuffy green uniform jacket. It was windy, too: the wind howled through the trees along the cemetery road and set all the tiny flags and flowers, freshly placed from Memorial Day, in motion. All the pieces were in place: the rifle squad, the chaplain, the NCOIC, and of course us, the pallbearers.
The funeral procession was preceded by the Patriot Guard Riders, who rolled in on their loud bikes, American flags whipping in the hard wind. They dismounted and lined the road next to the internment site, their flags in hand, standing silently. The sight was stirring, that these twenty or so civilians, strangers, would ride out on a humid, windy weekday to honor a soldier. We waited in formation for the procession to arrive; once the hearse came into view, we went to attention and waited for the sign to move. As we waited, the family and all the others crowded around the site; the funeral director had to continually shoo them away so that we would have room to approach the hearse. Among the procession were more than a few soldiers, dressed in Class A’s, dress blues, and ACUs. The ones in ACUs were fellow amputees who had been convalescing with our soldier in Texas; it heartened me to see them there, because they were probably traveling on their own dime and this made their show of solidarity all the more touching.
After what seemed like an eternity – but really only a couple of minutes – it was our time to act.
“Right, face. Forward, march.”
Our detail leader’s commands were hushed. We marched the short distance to the hearse, staring straight ahead. I did my best to ignore the crowd of people watching us, even though they were just a few feet away.
“Mark time, march. Detail, halt.”
We stopped and turned inwards to face each other, three on each side. The last man stepped in, fixing the flag on the casket and pulling it from the hearse. We passed it back until we each bore a part of the weight. It wasn’t so heavy – not with six men lifting it – and I felt surprisingly calm.
“Ready, face. Forward, march.”
We marched a few feet to the platform where the casket would be laid before being interred. The platform was wider than the casket, which made stepping past it awkward, especially for the us two center men with our short arms. The platform was a steel framed contraption, covered with a synthetic green skirt that looked like a ragged Christmas tree skirt. When I first saw it, I thought, couldn’t they get a new cover for this platform? It looked shabby as hell. Gently we lowered the casket onto the platform. There was utter silence except for the wind whipping the flags of the Patriot Guard riders and a few sniffles from the crowd. The parents were directly behind me, standing no more than an arm’s length away. I never saw what they looked like.
After lowering the casket, we stood up, taking the flag in our hands and stretching it level across the six of us. I stared at the center of the flag, which was almost shoulder height. The chaplain stepped in at the foot of the casket and began his sermon. I don’t remember most of it – my concentration was focused on keeping the flag level and remaining stock-still.
The only part of his sermon that I remember was the usual part that chaplains and pastors and such like to give at a funeral of a young man or woman. There’s always a bit about “God’s plan,” which I inevitably find absurd and offensive. The same thought shot through my head as he spoke the words: God’s plan? It’s in God’s plan that this young soldier – not even twenty-one years old – is dead now, while so many others, unworthy of living, still walk? If that’s God’s plan, well…
The chaplain finished and the first volley of rifle shots ripped across the silent cemetery. I’ve never heard blanks being fired without a blank adapter attached; it was much louder than I expected. The familiar racking of the M16’s bolt could barely be heard, then another volley, this one like a single rifle firing. Racking again, then the final report of shots.
The mournful sound of taps followed. Maybe I’m cold-hearted, or maybe it’s just that I was so focused on the duty at hand, or maybe it was simply that the soldier we were honoring hadn’t been killed in combat, but I felt little.
The final step was folding the flag into the triangle that would be presented to the soldier’s father. My job was just to hold the middle tight while the two on the end performed the fold. Before long, the flag was folded and passed to the NCOIC, who would in turn hand it to the general who was present, who would in turn present it to the family. I didn’t see any of that, though; our part was done.
“Ready, step. Ready, face.”
After the last command, we stepped off and marched away from the site, returning to our van. Before long, we piled in and left, leaving the crowd gathered around the internment site in their grief. Getting back to my car at the armory, I felt a sense of unreality. That was it? We had laid a soldier to rest, and had done so honorably, but I felt no catharsis. Of course, the ceremony wasn’t about me, but my preconceptions told me that I should feel something. But instead, I felt nothing. I drove home in silence, my mind empty.
I guess that’s what Memorial Day is all about, though – it’s not about us. It’s about them, those who went before us, who served, fought, and died. I’m glad I was able to play a small part in such an honorable thing.