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.