Here, he will give a more personal side of how the Old Guard members coped with the daily duty of performing the military honors for those being put to their final rest. These were young men who spent each and every day dealing with the realities of war and death. Their relief came in the form of strenuous training, and sometimes a bit of dark humor as you will read further down.
Gardens of Stone. This is an accurate description of Arlington Cemetery, which has rows and rows of headstones, and also the title of a 1987 film by Francis Ford Coppola. This movie is an insightful look at stateside military life in the Old Guard during the Vietnam War. Set in 1968 in Washington, D.C., a veteran sergeant has come to the conclusion that the Vietnam War is unwinnable and that America should withdraw as soon as possible. His attitude is contrasted by a young private who wants nothing more in life than to go into battle for his country. The veteran sergeant takes the young soldier under his wing and tries to prepare him for the deadly environment of war.
The movie ends with the funeral for the young soldier who had transferred to a combat company in Vietnam and returned as KIA (killed in action) to be buried in Arlington cemetery. The veteran sergeant then transfers to a combat company in Vietnam to continue the fight.
In the first scene the joint casket team, comprised of members from each service, is performing a military funeral. During the playing of Taps by an unseen bugler and while folding the flag over the casket, the casket team leader whispers very low so no one except the casket team can hear “ashes to ashes, dust to dust, let’s bury this guy and get back on the bus.”
Four years later in 1972, I would be one of the casket team leaders whispering the same and I suspect that this tradition continues. Each funeral had grieving spouses, parents, relatives and friends of the deceased. Unless you experience the constant stress and sadness of so many funerals, it will be difficult to understand, but at every funeral, the casket team leader whispers. There is no disrespect intended but a means of dealing with all the sadness, heartbreak and grief.
Our battalion rotated through four companies (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta) each week from ceremonial practice, battalion-wide details, ready company and funeral week. Echo, the fifth company in our battalion, had continual duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns. My favorite duty was ready week, when we had to stay available for immediate deployment to defend the White House and the least favorite and something that I did not look forward to was funeral week.
During funeral week in the Old Guard, I was a team leader on one of the casket teams that performed 15 to 20 funerals each day. Our morning started at 5:30 a.m. with pressing the creases in our dress blue uniforms, polishing our brass and patent leather shoes, making sure our white gloves were extra white and, of course, a close shave. We were not allowed to sit down without re-pressing our trousers. We would stand on the small military bus that would carry us to and from each funeral to keep from wrinkling our uniforms.
We would receive a list of the weeks scheduled funerals showing the names and ranks of the soldiers killed in action that were to be buried. It was especially sad after recognizing a name of a soldier that had been your friend in basic training. (Now, do you understand why that bit of “relief” is important to the team as they go through this process 15-20 times a day?)
I had mixed feelings; I was so fortunate not to have received orders for Vietnam, but as the young private in the movie, I also had a desire to fight for my country and would do anything to bring an end to so many funerals.
Clyde West is a Vietnam veteran and member of American Legion Post 143.
Robinson, a Vietnam veteran and member of American Legion Post 143, writes a weekly column for the Times-Georgian on veterans issues.