Friday, January 27, 2006

By honoring the dead, they honored us all

The other day it was my sad fortune to attend the funeral of my brother-in-law, Don.

Don served in the U.S. Army in the mid fifties. As a former serviceman, Don rated an American flag draped over his casket, properly folded, and presented to his widow. In the case of an active-duty serviceman this is done by an honor guard. For older folks, long out of service, it is usually done by representatives of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, or some other veterans' organization. Taps may be played, most likely a recording. You take what's available and what you can get.

My sister-in-law told me there would be a Marine honor guard at Don's graveside service. This sounded a little unusual to me, but sure enough, there was.

There were six Marines there, five of them in dress blues. There was a bugler in undress blues (dress blue trousers and white barracks cover with a tropical shirt instead of a blue tunic). Three Corporals and two Sergeants, commanded by a tall, ramrod-straight Lieutenant Colonel.

The three Corporals and one of the Sergeants, armed with M1 Garands fitted with blank firing adapters, comprised the firing party. The Sergeant called the firing party to attention and gave the commands "" three times. Four rifles, three volleys, twelve shots in all. The execution was crisp and sounded like three shots. The firing party rested their weapons in special ground brackets and marched from their firing positions to stand in a row behind the casket and salute while taps was played note-perfect by the Sergeant bugler. Two Marines then advanced to the casket and folded the American flag with an assist from the Light Colonel. The flag was brand new, and he helped smooth the factory creases. Hand salutes were rendered to the flag in a stately, funereal manner. The Colonel then presented the folded flag to Don's widow and gave her a final salute. He left for a moment and returned, at which time he inserted three of the fired cartridges into the flag. At this time the Marines gathered their gear and departed.

It brought a tear to this old Marine's eyes, but that's only half the story.

Not one of these Marines was under sixty years of age and some were considerably older than that. I noticed all the gray hair right away and so took careful notice. The Sergeants and two of the Corporals wore old-style rank chevrons, without the crossed rifles under the stripes. Those haven't been used since about 1960. There were a few residual ones when I was in but I never saw any after 1964. They're probably hard to come by these days, as it looked like these Marines modified newer chevrons to look like their old ranks. The older chevrons had skinnier stripes. The difference is that they were E-3 Corporals and E-4 Sergeants instead of the modern E-4 and E-5 ranks. Marines don't promote themselves, even after forty or fifty-plus years.

The Lt. Colonel, tall and slender, I estimate at 75 years. He looked tougher'n nails. He wore a Sam Browne belt, which as a uniform item went the same way of the old chevrons many years ago.

With the exception of the bugler in his undress blues, the Marines wore full medals, as opposed to ribbons. Some I could not identify and I believe they were campaign awards from WWII and/or the Korean War.

All except the Lt. Colonel wore Purple Heart medals, indicating that these men had shed blood due to enemy action. All combat veterans.

There may have been other military funerals this day, but there was no finer honor guard anywhere.

I have no idea where these Marines came from. Probably from a VFW Post or a Marine Corps League detachment somewhere on California's Central Coast. I do know one thing: they didn't have to be there. Unlike perhaps some active-duty troops pulling this solemn duty, they were there because they wanted to be. Their flawless performance indicated that they had done it before.

These Marines had been to war in some time long gone, in some place far away. The Purple Hearts indicated they had possibly seen some of their comrades in arms make the ultimate sacrifice. They have not forgotten. It is up to each and every one of us to not forget those who are making terrible sacrifices of body, mind, and life today.

By honoring Don for his long-ago service, they honor the memories, not only of their buddies, but of generations of Americans who died in the service of their country and countrymen and didn't get to raise families and grow old like they should have. I hope the other folks at the service got the message, particularly in this time of war. I'm sure some did, but I'm also sure, and it saddens me, that some didn't.

They honored all of us. I pray that we are all worthy of that honor.

No comments: