Remember the glory of the spirit, the valor and sacrifice of our fellow countrymen. This Memorial Day, I want to share with you five sobering stories from Jim Sheeler’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Final Salute: A Story Of Unfinished Lives.
Marine Air Squadron 23
Before graduating from boot camp, every Marine masters the blank stare: the focused but distant look that glares down from recruiting posters, the one meant to strike fear in enemies, the one intended to convey more than two centuries of tradition.
Marines are taught to hold the stare no matter the distraction. If a fly crawls on their face or in their ear, they are ordered to remain steady. But no training could prepare them for the funerals.
According to protocol—an extension of their sacred “Never leave a Marine behind” mandate—a fallen Marine’s body must be guarded whenever is it accessible by a member of the public. While they trained for war, the active-duty Marines stationed at Buckley Air Force Base took turns standing guard over the caskets. Inevitably, they learned about the life of the person inside. Underneath the formal white caps they call “covers”, many of the Buckley Marines keep the funeral brochures of every Marine they watched over.
“Now they are watching over us,” Sergeant Andrea Fitzgerald said as she turned over her cap, revealing a photo tucked inside. “I call them angels.”
During visitations, Marines hear the families talk to the body. At the memorial services they listen to the eulogies. During the burials they see the flag presented to the grieving mother or widow.
Through it all they try to hold the stare. They can stand still for hours. Their feet fall asleep to their knees.
“The pain we’re feeling drives us. It drives us for the family because the pride is bigger than the pain,” Major Beck said. “But the pain—you gotta take it home and cry in the dark. What else are you doing to do?”
For Staff Sergeant Kevin Thomas it starts when the Marines first meet the casket at the airport.
“You always hear all the statements like ‘Freedom isn’t free.’ You hear the president talking about all these people making sacrifices,” he said. “But you never really know until you carry one of them in the casket. When you feel the body weight, when you feel them, that’s when you know. That’s when you understand.”
Staff Sergeant Thomas said he would rather be in Iraq or any place he doesn’t feel so helpless. Still, he said, he has learned lessons from funeral duty that he knows combat can’t teach.
“I’ll be sitting in front of the computer and I’ll see the news: Another service member killed. It’s enough to choke me up, tighten my chest. That’s another hundred people that are about to be affected,” Staff Sergeant Thomas said. “All these things their parents are going to miss—watching their son get married; have children, watching their parents become grandparents. It makes you forget everything that’s important—well, everything that society makes you think is important. There’s no way that doing one of these funerals can’t make you a better person. I think everyone in the military should have to do at least one.”
Some of Staff Sergeant Thomas’s friends had been deployed twice already, but he had yet to be sent to Iraq. As much as the Marines will say they train so they never have to fight, once the battle begins, they want to be in the middle of it. Imagine training for your whole life to be a lawyer, one said, and never entering a courtroom. Imagine training for years as a journalist and never writing a story.
“It makes me feel guilty. People come up to me and say ‘Thank you for serving our country,’ I want to say, ‘I haven’t done shit.’ I want to take the Global War on Terrorism medal home and give it to my son,” he said. “He’s done as much as I have.”
Staff Sergeant Thomas couldn’t name many of the Marines he has been stationed with for three years. He never forgets the name of someone he helped bury.
“Sometimes I’ll just be sitting on the back porch, drinking a beer and I’ll start thinking about it. It’s those times, when you’re doing the regular things that people do that I think, ‘He’s never going to do this.’”
Then, inevitably, the burden returns.
“I agree with what we’re doing in Iraq, but the funerals, they exhaust you. It’s not the physical part. It’s just so exhausting. It makes me feel guilty for saying that. I feel a sense of loss even though I didn’t know the person. But the family members come up and they speak to you and there’s nothing you can say. Often it’s just a handshake. The standard line is, ‘It’s an honor and a privilege to do this.’ But that feels so inadequate. You want to do so much more for them and you just don’t know what to do. There’s no way to convey it. There are no words in the English language…I’ll go off for a walk, have a cigarette…to keep from crying like a baby.”