During one rainy afternoon in March, the cloud cover had blocked out the Massachusetts sky enough that, to my memory, it could easily have been the middle of the night. Freezing rain fell as it tends to in New England, so the turnout at the funeral was small. As we stood there, on either end of the casket in our dress blues, we had to devote more attention to maintaining our composure in the cold than we did to the family members milling about the seating area. Out of the corner of my eye, I glanced at my fellow sergeant, standing tall and proud under the sheets of rain and recall hoping I appeared as strong.
As long as there has been war, there has been a dividing line in perception between those who have been amid the chaos and those who have not. While in uniform, we tend to think of it as a cultural litmus test of sorts. Even service members that never see combat operations feel the rift between themselves and those that stayed back on the block. The life you lead amidst boots and bullets is completely foreign when compared the lives of our friends and families, even stateside where the two worlds are separated only by a chain link fence.
Marine Corps Inspector-Instructor duty assigns active duty and active reserve Marines to the important task of training America’s Reserve Marine force, but that’s not their only duty. Inspector-Instructor (I&I) staff stationed all across the country have the important additional task of administering funeral honors to fallen Marines. Often, these Marines led long, fruitful lives. Their funerals are attended by dozens of loved ones. Their families come together in a bitter-sweet combination of mourned loss and celebrated life. The Corps, for many, was a single chapter in a long book. The Marines in attendance, folding flags and firing rifles, serve as an honorary reminder of that great chapter; a symbol of their accomplishments, their honor and their courage.
Not all funerals are so ripe with abstract symbolism though. Sometimes, the man or woman beneath the flag looks just like the men and women saluting it. Often, they’re years younger than the Marines that honor them. These funerals are attended by hundreds, or thousands, all eager to honor our lost heroes, and looking to the honor guard not as a reminder, but as a stand-in. Our uniforms, clean cut hair and military demeanor make us indiscernible to some.
To the families of those we lose in combat, the Marines clad in dress blues represent something different entirely. For some, we are symbols of a military they’ve never seen in person. Their lost loved ones left them one fateful day in pursuit of purpose, pride and a paycheck. In some cases, the first time these family members see their children, brothers, sisters or cousins in the celebrated blue uniform was to say goodbye. For these mourning people, our dress blues do not always represent honor, courage and commitment. They can represent loss, pain and even regret.
During my years serving on the Inspector-Instructor staff for the 25th Marine Regiment, I never kept count of how many funerals I attended. My ‘Math for Marines’ estimate places it somewhere between one and two hundred. Sometimes I played the bugle (or rather I hit play on one), others I served as a part of the rifle detail. More often than not, I had the honor of presenting a flag to the parent, spouse, or child of the fallen.
The Marine Corps has always placed an emphasis on small unit leadership, and as a small unit leader, I was proud to bear that purpose and responsibility. Whether the departed led a long, full life, or had theirs cut short in defense of the freedom and way of life we hold dear, I fired, folded or presented with a somber pride. I was proud to be a Marine. I was proud to be seen in the same light and wear the same uniform as the heroes we interred.
As a rule, we tried not to learn much about the man or woman we honored. It was a mistake we each made in the early days of the job. The first time a fallen Marine came from your home town, was your age, had a wife with the same name as yours, it was impossible not to place yourself in their shoes. It was impossible not to feel the sadness. That sadness, of course, wasn’t due to the reminder of your own mortality. Each service member is aware of his or her own mortality from the first time they put on the uniform.
We complete our Service Member Group Life Insurance forms, sign them on the backs of our close friends and kid with each other about how we’re worth more dead than alive. The sadness doesn’t come from understanding that it’s possible that we may die in defense of our country. It comes from the sudden, painful realization that our loved ones will remain. The understanding that to my wife and brothers, I could one day be a flag on the mantle and a memory too painful to speak of, is among the worst realizations of my life. I understood then that the commitment I made to my country wasn’t my own. It was a promise I made on behalf of those who love me.
As I pressed the flag firmly between my hands and relayed the words I’d rehearsed in my mind a thousand times before, I expressed our country’s gratitude to men, women and children I’d never know, but I’d never have to. To us, each wife was our own, each child’s sad confusion about where their lost parent had gone was on us. The weight of that much hurt can seem overwhelming when you lose sight of what we were there to do. The men and women we honored had died doing something great. It was up to us to make sure their families understood that each of us in uniform honored and valued that sacrifice. It was up to us to represent the very strength we each, in our own time, questioned internally.
I paid my respects to countless heroes, formally and in my own way. Some families wanted very little or nothing at all to do with us, while others expressed their pride or gratitude. After a while, funerals began to feel like another day at work. Cemeteries tend to be well kept and peaceful, and a part of me even enjoyed my time walking along the headstones quietly. Twenty funerals in, you actively avoid the emotion of the event. By fifty, a trained numbness takes hold. Of all the funerals I attended, I now only recall a handful; those few instances that broke through our practice and training and made it impossible not to feel.
One such event took place the last year I served on I&I duty. A young infantryman had separated honorably from the Marine Corps and chosen to take his own life just a few short weeks later. His unit sent a number of Marines to Massachusetts from where he’d been stationed in Camp Lejeune and as such, we modified our traditional funeral honors ceremony. I had been on Inspector-Instructor duty for years at that point, and was chosen to present the flag to the Marine’s mother. I prepared myself mentally for her possible reactions. The crowd would be huge by comparison to most funerals and the local news was already setting up their cameras when we arrived two hours prior to the ceremony. Two Marines from his unit, both corporals and good friends of the deceased, would fold the flag and present it to me so I could, in turn, present it to his mother.
As they folded the flag, I stood in place, aware that none of the eyes were on me but that they would be soon. I felt calm, cool and collected. I was ready to do my part; until the corporal that approached me, folded flag in hand, looked me in the eyes. He was stone faced and composed, despite the tears streaming down his cheeks. As I looked at him, I saw a strength I feared I would never possess and it took me aback. I gritted my teeth and fought back tears of my own – something I’d never had to do at a funeral before. I took a long moment to collect myself before executing an about face and marching slowly to the next of kin. I said my lines and marched off. The funeral was over for me, but the mourning had just begun.
I wondered for a long time why grieving parents and spouses had never broken my demeanor, while a Marine that was just as much a stranger to me could. I attributed it to a lot of things: the emotion of the day, nerves, even the TV cameras. It wasn’t for years that I’d finally realize it was because that Marine, like me, was always aware of his own mortality. The struggle we face as Marines, Soldiers and Sailors is seeing the mortality of those we love, those we train and fight beside. Our struggle and the struggle of the families left behind are one in the same.
The cultural gap between civilians and the military exists, but in the end, the differences are superficial. We’re all human. We’re all Americans. As I stood at that rainy funeral in March, praying I appeared strong and honorable for the sake of the fallen and his loved ones, I stared straight ahead and waited to do my part. The rain fell as hard as ever as the priest spoke, but suddenly, it no longer fell on me.
The sister of the Marine we were honoring had gotten out of her seat in the front row and had taken a place by my side, holding her umbrella high above both of our heads. Another member of the family stood and did the same for the other Marine posted on the opposite end of the casket. I didn’t look to her or thank her. The ceremony had already begun and it wouldn’t have been appropriate. Instead, I carried out my duties silently as always. After the funeral, I approached the young woman and thanked her for her kind gesture. She refused to accept my gratitude. As far as she was concerned, we’d all buried a hero together that day. Our struggles, trivial by comparison to what that Marine had endured, were shared between all of us now. There were no distinctions between Marine and civilian in that moment, just a shared respect for those who gave all for the safety and wellbeing of each of us. In gratitude and grief, we are all the same.