National Guard funeral detail demands ‘our best, our all’
It is early afternoon on Saturday, and a coffin, its pearly white color in stark contrast to the grass at the Park City Cemetery, sits alone, resting on a wooden base a few inches above the ground.
It is abandoned, momentarily, by the men keeping watch. With weekend traffic driving past on busy Kearns Boulevard, and nobody gathered around, the coffin appears misplaced, a classless joke, perhaps, or a terrible mistake by a funeral home that left it there.
Minutes pass. The drivers continue to motor by.
The coffin sits as 13 Utah National Guardsmen, dressed in their Army combat uniform fatigues, boots and berets, approach. They drape an American flag over the coffin. They start a funeral service. It ends shortly. Just a few people really notice.
The guardsmen prepare for another service, one of about 20 they expect to perform on Saturday, talking about the slightest mistakes they may have made during the one just completed.
The services on Saturday are not real, and there is not a body inside the coffin. The guardsmen are training for military funerals, repeatedly performing a hallowed set of movements they want perfected. The day is part of a 40-hour course about military-funeral honors.
They understand they will likely be assigned an actual military funeral sometime. The deceased might be a soldier struck down in Iraq or Afghanistan. More often in Utah, though, the guardsmen will be called to perform a funeral for an elderly veteran who has died. It is frequently someone who fought in World War II, and funerals for Vietnam War veterans are becoming more common.
"They spend a lot more time training than doing the funeral. You only have one chance to show the family. That’s their last impression of the military," says Scott Faddis, a staff sergeant who lives in Woods Cross and is assisting with Saturday’s training.
Different veterans, different services
The National Guard has funeral teams based in seven cities in Utah, with the Salt Lake City-area one the biggest. Others operate in population centers of Southern Utah like St. George and rural outposts such as Price.
Faddis says the Utah National Guard is on a pace to perform 525 military funerals in 2008, up from the 350 tallied in 2007 and the 110 the year before. He expects the number will reach between 800 and 1,000 in 2009, with dying veterans and the National Guard’s closer relations with funeral homes accounting for the increase.
They train for three types of services, depending on the status of the deceased. A typical veteran receives a three-person detail — a bugler and two people to fold the American flag once it is removed from the coffin. Veterans who spent their career in the Army receive a seven-person detail, with a firing party added to the funeral service.
Full-honors funerals are limited to soldiers killed in combat, Medal of Honor recipients and high-ranking military people, retired generals among them. Up to 21 guardsmen might be assigned to a full-honors funeral, including seven folding the flag, a firing party of eight, a bugler and guardsmen providing a personal flag display.
The guardsmen training on Saturday have participated in as many as 200 funerals each. Most have been in at least 25 but some fewer than 10. They usually arrive at a cemetery an hour before a funeral to practice the ceremony once more, even after the 200 or so individual drills each guardsman is to perform while they are in Park City and the up to four hours each day they spend throughout the year practicing marches and folding the flag.
"It’s not so much an honor as it is the people who are doing it are appreciative of the people who have gone before us," Faddis says.
A wife watches
Layna May is at the cemetery on Saturday, proudly watching as her husband practices with the rest of the guardsmen. She is one of three wives observing.
Joshua May, her husband, is a staff sergeant from Logan assigned to the funeral detail six months, already performing about 15 ceremonies.
"He gets to salute them, salute the casket. That makes him able to say thanks to the soldier and the family," she says.
With May and the other wives at a distance, the guardsmen move into formation for another practice run. They stand at attention as they prepare to retrieve the flag-draped coffin from the hatchback of a white-colored minivan, a stand-in for a hearse.
Six of the guardsmen lift the casket from the minivan. A bugler salutes. The guardsmen carry the coffin to a make-believe gravesite, carefully set it down on the wooden base and return to their soldier stance. Four of them march away to serve as the firing party, the ones who will fire their M-14 rifles to mark the death. The other two remain at the gravesite. They will be the ones to fold the flag, usually joined by the bugler, to present to the family.
During an actual military funeral, it might take 45 minutes between the arrival of the casket and the end of the ceremony. The military honors usually last between six and eight minutes. Faddis says three people have been buried in military funerals in Park City in 2008. Each was a veteran.
Taps would be played just before the guardsmen remaining at the gravesite lift the ends of the flag from the coffin. It is not played on Saturday.
The guardsmen fold the flag twice lengthwise and then 13 times triangularly, shaping the flag into the familiar triangle that the family of a fallen soldier would be given. It takes one minute, 55 seconds to fold the flag.
On Saturday, the folded flag is handed to a guardsman playing the role of a grieving family member. As he sits on an upside-down plastic bucket, the flag carrier salutes him.
If they were performing a funeral, the guardsmen, who would be wearing their ceremonial dress blues, would then march off, leaving one member of the firing party to stand vigil until the family turns its back to the gravesite.
"If we outlive our husbands, this will be us, the grieving widow," May says. "They’re folding the flag, and it will be us accepting the flag."
Approaching 300 funerals
In the 18 months Jan Rigby has been a part of the detail, he has been assigned to some 270 funerals. About four of the soldiers were killed in action, and the rest were veterans or soldiers who died in car accidents or in other ways not related to combat.
Rigby, a staff sergeant who is leading the training on Saturday, must research the military service of each late soldier before a funeral. He verifies that they served with honor and they were not discharged from the military dishonorably. He finds out if they won medals of valor. Funeral homes have the family provide him documentation.
"During that process, we’re seeing what they did in their careers. The things they took part in are our nation’s history," Rigby says, recalling learning of soldiers’ valor on the Normandy beaches during the D-Day invasion in World War II.
For Rigby, the beginning notes of taps are the most poignant moment of a military funeral. A hush falls over the gravesite as the bugle player begins. Rigby says his thoughts turn to the late soldier at that moment.
He acknowledges he and the others are nervous during each funeral. They want the services to be perfect, and Saturday’s training is needed as they strive for that goal. They already have completed a week of basic training for the funerals and finished a two-week school to learn the intricacies. Still, Rigby says, the guardsmen continue to hone their performance.
"We’re showing the veteran and their families we’re giving them our best, our all," he says, adding, "They are Army soldiers, so therefore they are brothers."
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