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Posted by on Oct 30, 2009 in Health, Society, War | 26 comments

Obama Witnesses: The Escorts of the Dead


I live walking distance to Fort Logan National Cemetary. Every day, every every day come the black hearses, and color guard, the rifle squads and the often old VFW bugler. I can hear taps sometimes when the wind is just right. Military wife here (USAF 21 years of service by my DH). Working in post trauma recovery at VA over decades now, the men who volunteer to be escorts see it as silent duty, dont brag about it, most often have deep reactions and grim woundings from helping to carry the body of a most often person their own age back to their home and family.

Sometimes the older men who carry the bodies of the fallen have tears in their eyes as they carry this precious cargo of a human life extinguished… for they feel every soldier is like their own son and daughter. Many men who accompany the dead stay overnight in cargo and hangers and wont leave the dead soldier alone at night going the full distance to stay near even though it can tear them up for a long time to come.

The weight of the body in the casket… sometimes the men talk about the imbalance of weight in the casket, heavier on one end, as the body is in pieces and laid up at one end. Some caskets are so light beause there is so little left of the body, or because the soldier was nearly a child in age and in weight. There can be an scent from the casket, depending on condition of the deceased’s body.

Carrying the dead is a gut experience with all senses, touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste of the often cold wind at night. Some men bring the pouch too containing the small items found on or near the soldier’s body. Girlfriend pictures, muddy, St Christopher medal half melted, cigarettes flattened from the wet, a necklace with star of David filled now with dirt, or crucifix or half a heart. A letter from home, black with blood.

Afterward, so many things can remind and tear at the soldier who carried the dead. If the dead soldier was a father, seeing little children can cause such melancholy in those who carried the caskets. Sometimes getting drunk every chance for a while. Some escorts who take the soldier all the way back home are met by the tearful citizens of little villages who so many seem all potbellied and wearing snagged sweaters and with their hearts hanging around their necks… they only want to touch the casket to send love and gratitude to their neighborhood boy, their farm road girl, and there is grief that wails and is not polite.

Some who come to welcome their own back home, are old men and old women who served in Korea or WWII who look like walking dead because they are remembering other dead from long ago, only they remember them as alive and vibrant and therefore all the more heartbreaking. These old ones often show up in their flight jackets or VFW short order hats, and if theyre from Nam, and it’s winter, their regulation mold green parkas. And they talk in voices that shake with pride and grief.

All the slow salutes, and the civvies with hands over their hearts, and the sound of boots in cadence bearing their dead across the tarmack, the concourse, the hangar, the gymnasium floor, acorss the concrete pavilion at the cemetery, is not just ‘being an escort.’ Being an escort is a big nothing. Anyone can lug a box of bones, as some vets put it.

Rather, carrying the dead means a soldier has lost a beloved sister, a beloved brother; they all belong to the same tight family even though they never may have met one another. Everyone copes. But it stays with you.

Those who carry the dead, and those who stand in formation to honor the dead with all their sense alive and with a living heart, most often feel sharp and sudden pain over the evanescence of life. Witnessing that it takes six or eight or more men to carry the body of one soldier, to create the muscled wall of protection so that nothing more should injure the one who has fallen…

makes even more poignant that this soul was once a living person who was dear to someone, who was once was a grinning baby, then a staggering toddler who transgressed beyond parental gates, and then a child who sang at night, then a teenager filled with sight and heart, delight and sadness, then an adult human who loved and laughed, played cards, had plans, schemes, and noted a pretty face or form… and who loved and was loved… and who was lost not by dying, but lost to those who held the space for him or her at the table of life, in every way expecting their loved one to come home alive.

For those who have the eyes to see, the heart to hear, the memory of the weight of the dead is so great and so lasting that the muscles of the spirit ache from carrying it. The weight of witnessing the dead, bringing them back, taking them home for the last time, is more than what it looks like on television or in the tiny few inches of YouTube. Carrying the dead in reality and in one’s heart, has such weight… weight that has nothing to do with pounds and ounces.

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • Father_Time

    I have my grandfather’s burial flag and my father’s. One day my daughters will have mine. Looking back at my life, I can say that it is indeed a massive sacrifice to give that all up at youth should one be killed in a war.

    War is evil and far more civilians die than combatants. People unfortunate enough to have the battles fought in their home regions suffer beyond belief. Entire towns wiped out, the bodies of little children, blown apart homes once habited by families, the smell of the dead in the air. It has always amazed me how nobody officially remembers them, the civilians. No matter the war, (at least as far back as my grandfather’s WWI), you don’t see a lot of bravado among people that return from actual combat. I think this is not only because of what they saw and endured, but also guilt for what they did. War guilt deserved or not, I think it a proper emotion that may one day play a big part in ending war forever. At least I hope it ends. With every ounce of my being I hope it.

  • Leonidas

    War is indeed Evil, but sometimes the more Evil thing is not going to war.

    • kathykattenburg

      Sometimes? Seems to me the people who use that line usually never met a war they didn’t like.

    • Father_Time

      Your premise is very broad. You say “sometimes”. Since war is so intrinsically evil, I think more specifics should be used in describing what war has been less evil than having not gone to war.

  • spirasol

    Dr. E, I would like to honor the fallen or at least honor how you seem to feel about it, but…..I am the son of a military lifer and brother to a decorated wounded marine brother who took off his uniform and has never been able to turn his dishonorable discharge into something lesser, so he could obtain the benefits he deserves. I couldn’t get a rich kids deferment so I had to get it the hard way. I suppose it is possible to think of the military as being something prideful and honorable, but that has not been my experience. Growing up in the Vietnam era, then Iraq, now Afghanistan it all seems so beneath us. Edward Tick, a therapist who writes of his work with PTSD soldiers posits that, at least part of the problem is the degree to which we dishonor the soldiers by sending them on questionable missions/wars where the soldier himself questions the mission. Witness the bulging ranks of the veterans against war. A Captain in Afghanistan recently resigned. So if I lived near enough to see the black cars pass by every day…….and could hear when the wind blew southernly the sound of taps……… I would be saddened every day, every every day…for they do not die for anything noble…..and that is very very sad.

    • TheMagicalSkyFather

      We sometimes go to war for silly reasons. We sometimes go to war for stupid reasons and we sometimes go to war for good reason. No matter the cause the men who died following orders did die for something noble, they died for their nation. They died to protect their nation, their people and their home. No matter why the were sent every American soldier dies not for a cause or that war but for us. In their hearts that is what they believe and no matter what I think of the cause or the war or our policy I will stand by what they believe they died for because that is their reality and we owe them much more but at least that. I fought against the Iraq invasion both I and II and I look back on many of our wars and escapades with disgust but I know my place. What I mean by that is a soldiers place is not to ask why but to do or die and they hold up their end of the bargain every time this nation has put out the call, as a citizen it is my job to ensure to the best of my ability that we do not treat that sacrifice lightly and hold my government to account when or if I feel they are doing so. I take that duty very seriously and fail as I may to end the wars and save the lives they all died for a noble and honorable cause they died for our nation, our leaders on the other hand have often been less than honorable and lacked a noble bone in their bodies and I will not defend them if that is the case.

      • DdW

        MagicalSkyFather:You took the words right out of my mouth—only you said them much better.We must never pin on our soldiers who are honoring the oath they took (to serve, obey, sacrifice and die during the course of doing so, if necessary) the shame, the guilt, the blame that occasionally so rightly belongs to those politicians and so-called leaders who shamelessly ordered them to fight and die for nefarious causes and questionable goals.Just a personal opinion.

        • Father_Time

          The politicians are not responsible for whom you pull the trigger on. You have that choice and responsibility when you use a weapon. I suppose you can do that from 30,000 feet, when you are killing a grid coordinate on a map, but you can’t when you are looking at whom you are about to cut in half with an automatic weapon. You can’t blame it all off on “the politicians”. Especially when you volunteer.

      • Father_Time

        There is something about what you are saying that I don’t like, but I am at a loss to pin it down. Seems logical, but something is wrong.

        • TheMagicalSkyFather

          I think it is that I accept the soldiers reason for his death, or to be more specific my guess at his reasoning separated from the actual conflict. This would mean most Nazi soldiers died honorably for their nation and in the name of all Germans even though we know that they were dying in the name of Hitler and once they stopped that and Hitler was toppled the entire thing would have been over. I think this may be what you have an issue with, its what I have an issue with and consider it a loop hole you could drive a mack truck through sadly I believe its true. Humans can convince themselves of pretty crazy things and we often do so to make ourselves fell okay about things that are not okay. In other words I separate the soldiers “reality” from the wars “reality” which would in the end mean that no war is so wrong that the soldiers that fought it would lack honor or nobility. My main problem is that from what I know and have studied of human psychology its true but it muddies the moral landscape so greatly that it is also dangerous. Its a statement that a psychologist would probably enjoy but a West Point graduate would be faintly worried and haunted by it without knowing why. I say this with great respect for West Point and its students, they would see the danger in my statement and its threat to human personal responsibility.

          • Father_Time

            Coincidentally my father-in-law was a nazi, He served in France against the allies. An Austrian citizen inducted after the German annexation, (I assume inducted). He is dead now but I had a few good conversations with him on the subject. He chocked it up to being young and naive, loving your country and following your leader. He didn’t really admit to anything but he had the tattoo. I think he suffered a logical amount of guilt.

            Maybe your words sing out a bit to much blanket forgiveness for our soldiers for my taste. People have to be accountable for their actions and we have to hold them accountable with punishment. Otherwise we are no different than the nazis. In that case patriotic fervor can go to hell.

          • TheMagicalSkyFather

            This is the type of sentiment I usually attribute to West Pointers as well and it is why I hold them in such high esteem. They respect the chain of command to the letter but the rules codes and laws take precedence over the chain of command which is the only way to ensure that many horrors are avoided. I only wish we had more of them.

          • Father_Time

            I’m sure four years of education and indoctrination at West Point includes study of the Geneve` Conventions. At least I would hope so. Whether or not the U.S. Army seriously complies with them is another story worth investigating. I generally believe that the America military services are not war criminals. I also believe it is pretty darn difficult to prevent all innocent deaths, but some small unit actions in Iraq are inexcusable and a shame upon the rest of the military as well as our country. After court-martial results made public, I believe justice was not served in accordance with law or depicted within our pontificated national values.

            IMO we cannot justify killing one single captured terrorist, if we do not also kill our own convicted war criminals.

  • tidbits

    Having never served, I cannot speak with the eloquence of FT, whose comment moved me. Nor have I carried the bodies of strangers tied by a common bond. My father served (Korea) but never spoke of it except to say that he was there. He had medals but would never show them. To this day I have never seen them.

    That we send the promise of our youth to die for the fantasies of old men in power I do not pretend to understand. So few wars are truly necessary. But, I honor those who serve, who find meaning and purpose there, and I honor too those who silently carry the boxes of their comrades, and those who fold the flags and those who keep the flags of their fallen loved ones.

    I would like one day to see my father’s medals.

    • Father_Time

      Thank you.

      I just want all the “glory” taken out of war. People understand their duty. They don’t need the BS. If they don’t understand their duty they soon will when they get there.

      Another thing; For a nation that holds human life so unquestionably precious, we certainly minimize the affect of collateral damage and rationalize away innocent death a bit to much for my taste.

      A few years back in Iraq, the media brought to us pictures of the aftermath of an entire Iraqi family wiped out in their own home by a squad size Marine force. The picture of a pink house shoe worn by an adolescent girl that had answered the door, laying in blood, sent me spastic. Old pictures in my mind became vivid again. I reeled in anger for days until I realized that I was looking for someone to vent my anger on. There was no one worthy of such anger. Possibly nobody in the whole world. No justice either, by the out come of the court-martials, IMO.

      But it’s war. It’s just friggen evil.

  • DLS

    “We must never pin on our soldiers […]”

    That’s one lesson people seem to have learned from the Vietnam experience — it seems so and I hope so.

  • spirasol

    I dunno, me thinks many of you are preaching to the choir………….who exactly wants to blame the soldiers? Nonetheless, we send them in our name, for our nation, and weird things happen to the other, the enemy, the innocents, and to them; they come home broken, and are less able to participate in their relationships, careers, and increasingly we know they take their own lives. There was a sad disclaimer about the attention and honoring of the combat deceased, but a small and growing group of soldiers who commit suicide are not acknowledged, get no medals, and their families are not honored either, at least as I understand it. Why?Below are some poetic veteran voices who honor the dead while at the same asking WHY?”So we lift up to you voices much more eloquent than our own, voices of soldiers who survived the worst fighting human beings have ever experienced, World War One. For nearly 100 years, the wisdom and compassion of their poetry has endured. Their words now stand as one of the world’s most powerful witnesses to the madness of war.”–Mike Ferner, former Navy hospital corpsman and President of Veterans For PeaceYou must hear them. And you yourself would mutter whenYou took the things that once were men,And sped them through that zone of hateTo where the dripping surgeons wait;And wonder too if in God’s sightWar ever, ever can be right.– From “Foreword” by British ambulance driver, Robert ServiceAnd…If in some smothering dreams you too could paceBehind the wagon that we flung him in,And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum estPro patria mori. – From “Dulce et Decorum est” (It is Sweet and Right to Die for Your Country)by British Army Lt. Wilfred Owen, killed a week before the 1918 Armistice.

    • tidbits

      Spirasol, you said, ” I dunno, me thinks many of you are preaching to the choir”.

      There is no sin in sharing mutually held feelings. It bonds us and makes it easier to disagree with respect when we do disagree, and that is often.

      That you sing a different tune than this choir does not go unappreciated. Another day on another post on another subject, perhaps on suicide among veterans or veteran’s benefits or the treatment of surviving soldiers or the horrors of war, I might sing in your choir, but not today, not on the subject of this post.

      • spirasol

        Tidbits, you said not today, “not on this subject could you sing in my choir”What I was trying to convey is that the picture is so much more complex. We honor the dead is a little like the blue wall the cops create around them. It becomes impenetrable, without nuance, not talk-about-able. Sure we honor the dead, but we also mourn them, feel angry about the political reasons why they died, and wonder aloud of the necessity. I am thinking of the Clint Eastwood movie, where he plays the role of a life long soldier now retired, who has lost two sons to war, and now his third is murdered, and the military is stonewalling. The father essentially fights the military and wins but in the process loses all the honor and dignity he once held for the military and his wife is shattered having given all her progeny to the military. In the beginning he raises the flag every morning in front of his house. At the end he does the same but the flag is upside down.

        Who is the football star, whose family had to hear multiple excuses as to how he died only to find out he was killed by friendly fire.Decades after Vietnam, my brother is angry……he holds “sempri fi” proudly in a small room inside his head, but the rest of him is highly conflicted……while desserters and draft dodgers were forgiven, the military would not forgive him. He gave 3 years of his life protecting the nation, and the nation, through its military essentially said “drop dead.”I think that is likely what I do……. there is a small room in my heart where I can honor the dead unequivocably, but the rest of me has very many mixed feelings about the whole thing…………and mostly am very sad. I don’t have a son, but if I did I would feel very very badly if in his youthful bravado he were to choose the military path as a means of expressing it. I wouldn’t stop him, but I would feel very sad…..especially if I lived in a place where the black cars roll by every day and the sound of taps enter into my consciousness…………..for my brother that is likely all that would be required to trigger his PTSD.

        • tidbits

          Spirasol –

          There is a time to criticize and a time to honor the dead. This post was about honoring the dead. One should protest and protest loudly that which is wrong, but protesting at a funeral is beyond what I would do, and this post is about funerals and inspired by a president in the middle of the night standing at attention to honor the dead. I don’t disagree with you sentiments, but rather with your timing.


    • kathykattenburg

      There was a sad disclaimer about the attention and honoring of the combat deceased, but a small and growing group of soldiers who commit suicide are not acknowledged, get no medals, and their families are not honored either, at least as I understand it. Why?I think because it raises too many uncomfortable questions.

      It’s not that I disagree with what anyone has written here, about respecting and honoring the soldier who sacrifices for his nation even when the leaders of his nation had no business asking him to make that sacrifice. But what do we say when the sacrifice itself is the indictment against the war — against war itself? It’s easy enough to say we have such respect for the sacrifice of a soldier who dies engaging the enemy. But what do we say to the parents of a soldier who took his own life because he could not live with the pain of what he saw, and sometimes did? What do we say to, or about, the soldier who is clinically depressed, suicidal, having flashbacks and nightmares, years after he came home? Can we say that the sacrifice of this man’s mind is something to honor and respect? I think what it’s about, ultimately, is that there are some sacrifices that are actually crimes — against the person who has sacrificed. We have to find a way to come to grips with that truth, because until we do, the soldiers who need our love and concern the most will continue not to get it.

  • Ghostdreams

    I think some people, regardless of where they were stationed, whether or not they were in a war zone, any of that…
    Walked into the service as one thing (young people with hope and dreams) and came out as the “walking dead.”
    For every one person we have coming back in a body bag, I’d bet there’s one out there, still walking…
    but for all intents and purposes … they feel as if they are dead and that death would be a much better thing for them but they’re not sure how to go about ending the nightmare.
    I think we have vets who have served during peacetime that have had this happen to them.
    A darkness has descended on them due the military mistreating them so severely, people whom they trusted and tried so very hard to please….but they just didn’t make the cut and they paid for that in psychic blood loss and a damage so profound that I doubt it can ever truly be undone.
    I pray for our dead soldiers ..both those who are buried and for those who feel as dead as their comrades but haven’t made it into the ground yet.


    • kathykattenburg

      This is what I was trying to say, but you said it much better than I did.

      Thank you.

  • ProfElwood

    I knew a man who committed suicide after coming back from Iran. He was trained, ready, and able to survive out there, but he wasn’t ready for the personal harassment (not war related) that he received at home. I see most people show respect and honor for those returning from combat, we need to protect them over here like they protect us over there.

    I also have to agree that war, in all its forms, needs to be avoided if at all possible. The lives of our soldiers and our opponents must never be taken lightly.

  • spirasol

    I offer my wrists for cuffing and I confess to poor timing………. Though I wonder who will speak for those who cannot speak, I will seal my lips with a glue made of dry tears and blood cake. Though a sorrow mixed with anger spills out the bottom of my trousers…..I am capable and will hold the silence.

  • Leebot

    The wind whipping at Obama’s pant leg was a visual metaphor for me. I want my president to show up — to be present — to bear witness — even when it is heart-wrenching and difficult, even when the emotions are buffeted. ESPECIALLY when the emotions are buffeted. I want President Obama to do everything he can to always be fully cognizant of the horrible cost of war . . . to remain connected to his own human self in what can be a soul-sucking job . . . I want him to always resist shielding himself in any way from the full impact of the decisions of his office.

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