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.