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Privilege of a funeral

The below is an article titled "Privilege of a Funeral." It is something I wrote and was convinced to submit for publication. I'm proud to say it was accepted and later published in the Marine Corps Gazette, June 2012 Vol. 96 No 6 edition. I've never shared this outside of that publication but now want to share it with all of you. Enjoy.......

It is Saturday, 31 December. Five days ago I hit my 18-year anniversary as a United States Marine. Today is also the day that, as a First Sergeant, I performed the burial honors of a fellow Marine, a retired First Sergeant. We rehearsed several times to make sure everything would go as planned. Of course, a plan is never concrete. When the funeral director arrived, he informed me that he would like for me to carry the urn and place it on the stand. This was new. The place where I had practiced standing was not the place I would be for show time. These were all minor changes and easy to deal with. With the changes implemented, I took my new position and waited for the vehicles to arrive to my left. As the families exited their cars, their direction to the chairs had them cross directly in front of my line of sight. Some stopped to say thank you. Some, as they passed by, thanked me in almost a whisper for simply being there. Others stopped briefly to shake my hand and thank me for my service. I was humbled by all of this. The most humbling thing for me was none of these things though. After everyone had passed by me I regained my thousand-yard stare to the front. Almost directly in front of me was the first holder of the American flag— one of many who volunteered their time from the Patriot Guard. This one in particular was special to me though. He was a gentleman who had brought his son along. A young man no more than 8 to 10 years old stood there with him. Father and son stood proudly as they held the flag in honor of this fallen Marine. I glanced at the young man and noticed his gaze was directly on me. Never in all my days have I seen such a look of awe and amazement, sprinkled with a young man’s respect. Being stared at for so long without a blink or looking away would have the potential to make me feel a bit uncomfortable or, at the very least, self-conscious at any other time, but not today. Today I stood proud in Dress Blue uniform, my chest out and chin tucked, ribbons and badges on display. My mind raced as I wondered what the little guy was thinking. Was his view of me this day inspiring him to one day make a trip to Parris Island to earn his eagle, globe, and anchor? Would he be asking his daddy random questions about Marines for years to come? My selfish thoughts were interrupted by the funeral director stepping up to me and saying, “It’s time, Sir.” I went from thinking about this young man’s future to realizing another man’s present had ended as I picked up the urn and carried his ashes, placing them in front of his family. I listened to the preacher’s words and prepared for the shots to be fired and the playing of Taps, all the while rehearsing over and over in my head the words I would soon speak to this Marine’s wife:

On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of your husband’s faithful service to country and Corps. I took a knee and handed her the flag, then stood to render the final salute. Before being fully back at the position of attention she spoke a tender yet meaningful thank you into the afternoon air. As I faced right and stepped off slowly, with my back turned to the family as I walked away, I had this feeling that it was somewhat symbolic of their first sergeant leaving this life for another. My mind was racing with thoughts of the little boy and the things he actually thought of me and the other Marines there. I was proud of the Patriot Guard for volunteering their time to make sure no one could disgrace this Marine’s service during his final ceremony. I was proud of my Marines for, as Marines do, executing flawlessly. I guess overall, I just want to be the one to say, “Thank you, 1stSgt West,” for the privilege of today.

>Author’s Note: During my career I have been assigned to funeral detail numerous times. As a junior Marine I filled the role of both rifleman and burial detail. Later as a sergeant while serving as a Drill Instructor, Company M, 3d Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Parris Island, I was once again assigned as part of the burial and flag folding detail. Now, as inspector-instructor staff, we are responsible for as many as 40 funerals a year. My responsibility, as the senior member of the detail, is to present the flag to the family member. The level of personal interaction in passing that flag to the surviving loved ones is an honor I am proud to say I have accomplished in my career.

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