Most of you who are reading this are aware of my position an editor at PreCentral.net. It’s a great job, and I get to work with awesome people doing superb work. But PreCentral is my “night” job. My “day” job is a strange one, and it’s one that I don’t go into a lot of detail about, but after today’s work I feel the need to put it down in words.
As many of you are aware, I am a member of the Ohio Army National Guard. I have two jobs within that. There’s the standard “one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer” reservist thing where I’m a Specialist in the 122nd Army Band, based out of Columbus, Ohio. The other 28 days of the month I’m a member of the Southwest Ohio Military Funeral Honors team, ensuring that those who served in the military of the United States of America receive the final respects they deserve for having sacrificed for their country with honor and distinction. I put on my dress uniform almost every day and head out to the cemeteries of the Cincinnati-Dayton area (and beyond) to sound Taps, fold the American flag, and present it to grieving loved ones. On occasion, pall bearing and rifle salutes are included as part of the ceremony (due to personnel constraints, the “full honors” is typically reserved for those that have retired from the service or were killed in action).
It can be an emotional job, but in the three years I’ve been doing it I’ve learned to separate myself from what’s going on. It can seem cold, but I’ve been told several times by family members that they appreciate the stoic and calm that the presence of an emotionally-detached honors team brings to the funeral service. I regularly see people at one of the worst moments in their life: the loss of a parent, or long-time spouse, or life-long friend. It can be tough, but there’s almost always a sense of closure that the funeral service brings to these families. It’s the end of what was usually a long and rich life for the deceased, and often the end of a physically and emotionally painful decline at the tail end of their life. I hear often that the deceased is now free from the pains of his Earthly body.
While I don’t believe that the consciousness that once thrived in the body in the casket or urn before me has gone anywhere (that’s a discussion for another point), it’s comforting to know that whether the “soul” goes to a great beyond or just ceases to be, the suffering inflicted by cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and advanced old age is at an end. And the suffering that is watching the decline of their loved on is at an end for the family and friends. There’s closure, and it has nothing to do with the afterlife – it has to do with the end of a long and quiet suffering here in this realm.
What makes that closure become realized is that the family knows it’s coming. We all know we’re eventually going to die. Most of us are going to succumb to a disease of old age, be it the end result of the habits of our lifestyle or just a ticking time bomb in our genes. But we know it’s coming, and when we’re relatively young, it seems to be a long way off. When we start that decline, we have time to prepare ourselves and our loved ones for the inevitable. Hopefully by the time we reach that point in our lives, we’ve been able to live a rich and rewarding life and have an appreciable impact on the lives of the people we love.
That encapsulates what I encounter on most days of my job. Resignation, closure, and relief. It’s the end of suffering.
Sometimes, my job forces me to see the beginning. Today was one of those days.
This morning I reported to Cincinnati’s Lunken Airfield to welcome home Army Private First Class William Blevins. PFC Blevins was serving in the Kunar province of Afghanistan when he was killed by an IED on May 23rd. He was 21-years-old. Three of his fellow soldiers – SSG Kristofferson Lorenzo, PVT Krippner, and PVT Allers – were also killed in the blast.
All families of service members know that should their loved on be deployed to a combat zone, there’s the chance they could not come home alive. But nobody actually expects for their child, spouse, or – worst of all – parent to not come back alive. We always expect for the worst to happen, it’s instinct, but we don’t actually plan for the absolute worst. Our loved ones are supposed to come back home after a year with a smile on their face, a few medals on their chest, and some interesting stories to tell. Not in an oak casket.
From the honor guard perspective, what I did today is coldly called an HTR – an Honorable Transfer of Remains. In the simplest terms, a six-person pall bearing team carried PFC Blevins’ casket from the chartered transport jet to the hearse, and then from the hearse to the funeral home. As far as sequence and steps go, it’s a simple job: we’re moving a casket from A to B in the most dignified manner possible. Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of practice doing this, so we’ve gotten to be quite good at it.
What makes an HTR difficult is the emotions. With two exceptions, every HTR I’ve participated in was for a fallen soldier that was younger than me. I’m 24, and I don’t anticipate my life ending any time soon. I’ve accomplished a lot, but there’s still a lot I still want to do with my life. Those two exceptions I mentioned, those were for the recovered remains of soldiers from WWII and Vietnam; the emotions of the small family contingents on the tarmac were almost entirely relief – they long ago accepted that their loved on wasn’t coming home.
Today was not like that. PFC Blevins came from the town of Sardinia, population 826. On hand to honor the return of his remains was myself and six of my honor guard colleagues, at least three dozen members of the motorcycle-riding funeral escort group the Patriot Guard Riders, members of the Cincinnati police and fire departments, and the Blevins family, having traveled the hour from Sardinia to Cincinnati. The press was kept off the airport grounds, providing coverage from outside the tarmac fenceline.
The notes of Taps often elicit weeping from mourners at the funerals I participate in. Military honors typically take place after the conclusion of the religious service, and as Taps signifies the end of the duty day on military posts around the world, it also signifies the end of the “day” for the body we’re laying to rest.
There is no sounding of Taps at an HTR. There’s no presentation of the flag to a grieving widow or the report of three rifle volleys. There’s only silence, barely punctuated by the sound of the quiet commands given amongst the honor guard team. Service members killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq are first flown to Germany, and then to Dover, Delaware. From there, a contracted jet specially outfitted for the sole purpose of transporting the remains of fallen veterans, flies directly to the closest airport to the family. When that jet lands, it has a pilot, co-pilot, an escort officer, and the flag-draped casket on board. Nothing else, save the lift used to bring the casket down to the tarmac (it’s far preferable to the airport tarmac conveyer belt that used to be used when caskets were shipped as freight in the cargo hold of commercial passenger airliners). The crew of the transport jet works quietly and professionally getting everything set up to bring the casket out. They’re good people doing a righteous job.
But as soon as the casket is pushed into view the silence is broken. Not by Taps or the sound of synchronous rifle shots. Not by honor guard commands or a minister’s prayer or a humorous story that encapsulates the spirit of the deceased in a eulogy that brings tearful smiles to the faces of the mourning.
It’s the sound of crying.
Sometimes it’s a muffled sob. Sometimes it’s a yell of anguish. It comes from mothers and fathers, girlfriends and wives, children and life-long friends. And it’s always painful. I’ve built a wall between my emotions and my actions, I know that if I think too much about what it is that I’m doing, then I’m likely going to start crying myself.
This family didn’t have the warning to prepare for this day. Less than a week ago their loved one was alive and well, fighting for what he believed in in a land far from here both physically and mentally. And then, in an instant, that life was snuffed out. What I see in my job is only a part of the grieving process, and I can’t imagine how much pain these families have endured in just a few day’s time.
Our job is to transport the casket from the plane to the hearse. With that done, we render one final salute and leave the area. It might seem cold to just up and leave, but we do it to give the family space and so that we don’t serve as a distraction. From the airport we drove out to the funeral home in Russellville (just a short drive down the road from Sardinia) so that we could be ready to transfer the casket from the hearse into the funeral home, where it would be prepped for a viewing later that night at the local high school (the only local venue large enough to hold the anticipated crowd).
We were at least five miles out from Russellville when I noticed the yellow ribbons. They were placed on sign posts, mail boxes, power poles, guard rails, and trees. When there was nothing within a few yards to stick it to, a post had been put into the ground for the sole purpose of displaying that ribbon. Once we got into Russellville, we saw the American flags hanging off every streetlight. What was more impressing, however, were the people. Our honor guard group arrived about thirty minutes ahead of the funeral procession, and the residents of Russellville and Sardinia had already lined Columbus Street to pay their silent respects to PFC Blevins and his family.
When the procession made it to town, they had a six-car police escort at the front and a few dozen Patriot Guard Riders on their thundering motorcycles, each flying a large American flag. It’s an impressive sight, and an impressing experience. It sticks with you. But what I think might stick with me even more was the reaction of the crowd that had gathered along the street. They stood quietly and solemnly, some holding each other, some holding their hand over their heart. All somber. All grieving for their community and the Blevins family, even if most of them didn’t even know William.
Most days I’m able to do my job with minimal emotional involvement. You can develop a morbid sense of humor on the job, and I’ll admit I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how I want my own funeral to be conducted. I’ve heard many great stories about great people, and been there to serve as that solemn rock when a grieving family needed it.
But days like today, filled with outpourings of grief, pride, sorrow, support, and the unmatched pain of the sudden loss of a dear loved one… days like today can get to me. Days like today are why I do what I do. I’m not likely to find myself in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other military harm’s way anytime soon. I fire a weapon once a year only for qualification purposes, the rest of the time I play a clarinet and make graphics and spreadsheets on a computer. I can’t measure up to those that have laid down their lives in defense of their country, their friends and family, and their ideals. What I can do is make sure their sacrifice is honored. That those that have given that last full measure of devotion are laid to rest with the dignity and respect that they so deserve.