Military Weekend: A Few Marines Who Are ‘The Last to Let You Down’
Three weeks ago I was honored to be a pallbearer for my good friend, John Tschirhart, a World War II veteran who reached the age of 96.
The ceremony and services were at different places, so we carried John’s casket several times.
There were eight of us and John wasn’t heavy.
The last place we carried John’s flag-draped casket to was graveside.
It was a beautiful, emotive ceremony full of symbolism, ritual and tradition — as military funerals are — with the firing of three rifle volleys, the somber, haunting playing of “taps” by the lone bugler and the meticulous and purposeful folding of the flag and its heartrending presentation to John’s family.
In addition, making the ceremony even more poignant and moving, there were the melancholic, haunting notes by a bagpipe player.
I did not stay for the lowering of John’s coffin to the ground.
For whatever reason, last night I dreamt of exactly that: John’s casket being lowered into his grave. The pent-up emotions of John’s funeral finally caught up with me, albeit in my dream.
It was the first thing I told my wife this morning.
She commented that there must be some meaning in it.
Then, as I do every morning, I sat down at my computer to catch up on the night’s events and mail.
One of the very first articles to catch my attention was T. Rees Shapiro’s “For Marines who carry their own to burial: ‘The Last to Let You Down’” in the Washington Post.
After getting over the eerie coincidence, I gained a better understanding of a unique military unit of which one does not hear or read much, but which is an outstanding example of how much the military values and cares for its departed.
It is the Marine Corps Body Bearers Section, an elite Marine Corps unit at Arlington National Cemetery whose members carry their Marine Corps brethren and Marine dependents to their final resting place.
Of all 182,000 active-duty Marines, there are just 10 Body Bearers, making the unit based at the 8th and I barracks in southeast Washington one of the smallest of the Corps. To join, Marines must be at least 5-feet-11 — to ensure the casket remains level when carried — and they must be capable of lifting more than 200 pounds. As part of their training, the Body Bearers learn to breathe only through their nose so as not to give the appearance of exerting themselves as they walk with the coffins elbow high. In addition, the Marine Corps prides itself as the only military branch to use six pallbearers for all funerals rather than eight.
While these Marines train very hard to make each funeral “flawless” — Shapiro: “The training regimen is tougher than boot camp” — these hardened Marines still cannot prepare for all aspects of their graveside ritual, says Shapiro, “as the most difficult moments come when they least anticipate: the sight of a boy at his father’s funeral dressed in the fallen Marine’s oversized uniform, or the sound of a K-9 service dog whimpering as the Body Bearers interred its handler.”
Shapiro highlights a ritual that impressed me at my friend’s funeral and has impressed me at all military funerals, the precise, meticulous, almost loving folding of the flag into that so well-known final triangular shape, then to be presented to the family of the deceased in the most dignified way.
It takes 13 individual folding movements to create the beautiful blue field/white star triangle encasing the flag. There are several “scripts” assigning meaning to each of the 13 folds. One can find some of them here.
For more background on the Marines’ Body Bearers, please read “Leatherneck: The Final Escort” by Mary D. Karcher at Military.com and watch the video below.
CODA: Another tradition performed by navies around the world for hundreds of years, including the U.S. Navy, is the “Burial at Sea.”
Below is a photo of sailors aboard the USS Mahan firing the first of three volleys during a burial-at-sea ceremony in the Atlantic Ocean, Nov. 26, 2016. The Mahan is supporting U.S. national security interests in Europe. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tim Comerford.
Lead photo: Marine Corps Body Bearers carry the body of Maj. Gen. Warren R. Johnson Sr. through Arlington National Cemetery Oct. 26. Johnson, who was an artillery officer, retired from the Marine Corps in 1980. (Photo by Cpl. Bobby J. Yarbrough)