When I present the American flag to the next of kin I am both present and removed. In my service dress uniform, I’m down on one knee, right hand over left, the folded American flag sandwiched between them, and I look into the eyes of the mother, daughter, father, or son of the deceased service member, and recite the refrain standard for the presentation of the flag. Their eyes are wet. Mine are dry. I focus on the words. “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation,” I begin, and if the next of kin is the crying type, this is when they will cry. I show no emotion. I continue. “Please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation of your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” I pass them the flag. The next of kin sometimes says “Thank You.” I stay silent. I stand at attention and give a slow salute, holding it for a count of seven. Salute finished, I make a facing movement left, step forward to meet the other member of the funeral detail, and then face right. “Detail, Forward March,” I say, and we march out, services complete.
As Navy Reservist, I am eligible to perform Navy funeral honors, which are coordinated by Petty Officer Graves, an active duty enlisted who works at my Reserve drilling location in Denver. We call them “Funerals.” At Indoc for Reserves, Graves introduced herself to us and said that she needed more Reservists to do Funerals. Every person who has served in the military and departed under conditions other than dishonorable merits full military honors–it is required by law. In most locations, Reservists are the service members called upon do to perform these honors, except in cities with a uniquely high navy population, such as San Diego or Norfolk, where the honors are performed by active duty. Graves told us that Funerals are the most important thing we could do in the Reserves, “Period. The End,” she said. Period. The End. She repeated that phrase several more times.
I usually get a text a day before the funeral service. Sometimes two. I usually say yes. If I say yes, the day of, I drive from my apartment in Fort Collins in time to arrive at the funeral site forty-five minutes before the service begins. In the winter, I wear my Service Dress Blues in the car. They’re black and don’t show wear as easily. In the spring, I wear shorts and a t-shirt for the drive while my choker whites hang in a uniform bag. I don’t change into them until after I arrive. The slightest touch makes them dirty. After I arrive at the funeral site, I survey the plan of the day: cemetery or funeral home or church; casket or cremains; who was the service member, who is the next of kin. The service begins. I either fold the American flag to the Presenter or have the flag folded to me and then I present it to the designated family member, down on one knee, telling him or her how the flag is a symbol of their loved one’s service to the United States of America. Then I march out.Then I go home.
Ideally, I do two funerals a week. Most of the time I do one. If a week goes by without a text from Graves, I text her, just to make sure she hasn’t forgotten about me. “I haven’t forgotten about you, Sir,” she assures me. As a grad student, I need the money. As performer of funeral honors, I need the practice. Every funeral service is made up of dozens of quick, precise movements that have to be performed perfectly and in coordination with the other Reservists at the service. I’ve made mistakes. To date, beginning October 2015, I have performed over 35 Funerals. At my third funeral, I forgot to salute the flag after I presented it. After the services, another Reservist, Petty Officer Turner, didn’t hesitate to correct me. At my 30th funeral, I was the Presenter, and after I saluted the flag that Turner held and had folded, I accepted it, but turned and kneeled on one knee before Turner had a chance to return the salute. After, Turner corrected me again. I have no problem with this. I want to be perfect.
I don’t know the service members whose funeral honors I am performing. I don’t know their family. Sometimes, while waiting in the lobby for the service to start, I browse the pamphlet and pictures that were created by the family, which help to create a portrait of their lives. They have lived rich and interesting lives, in and out of service, a legacy that will outlive them. Korea. Vietnam. The Cold War. Careers. Children. Grandchildren. I feel like it’s my duty to learn even just a little bit about each one of them. Sometimes I will Google their names, looking for their obituaries. A lot of the times, I can’t find anything.
But I need to keep myself emotionally removed, not just for my own sake, but for the families. I’m not there to grieve. I’m there to create a space by which the family members can grieve their loved one. I perform this service for both of them. There is finality in me doing so. I have a set number of movements in the ceremony to execute, and the more perfect I do so, the closer I become to rendering the honors necessary for the loss of a veteran of the United States Navy. When I hand the flag to the next of kin, I am passing a legacy from one generation to another, a legacy or service and sacrifice that this country was built on.
I graduated from the Naval Academy in 2007. I have had classmates who have died, some in the line of duty, some not. At my five-year reunion, I attended a memorial service at the military cemetery on the Academy campus to honor the classmates who were no longer with us. I knew some of their faces but not their names, and I wondered how it was that I recognized them. Did I have a class with them at some point? Did I see them in the hallway on the way to class? I don’t know. I haven’t performed funeral honors for anyone I have known. I don’t think I would want to, either.
Wes Van Dorn was my classmate. We were in the same major together, too. Ocean Engineers. He was blonde, built like a truck, smart, and always had a smile on his face. The consummate Midshipman and Naval Officer. He commissioned as a Navy SEAL before eventually switching to be a helicopter pilot for the MH-53E Sea Dragon, based out of Norfolk, Virginia. He died January 8, 2014, on a routine training mission when his helicopter crashed into the water. At the time, I was active duty and on my shore tour in Japan. The news spread on Facebook. A year later, a feature was written in The Virginian Pilot about Wes and about the events surrounding the crash. When I read the article, I learned details that I didn’t previously know. I didn’t know, for example, that he survived the crash. I didn’t know that while he was being taken into the hospital, hypothermic, suffering from third-degree burns, three missing fingers, and a missing foot, that he sat up from his gurney, batted away one of the emergency workers and asked, “Where’s my wife?”
When I read that, it chilled me to the bone.
There have been other classmates so have already passed, classmates whom I recognize, but don’t know from where. Car crash. Plane crash. Bad luck. Fate. There will be more.
Funerals are not only necessary, they are important. They are the important service I have performed in the Navy. Once a month, for Reserves, when I drill in Denver, I talk with Petty Officer Graves about some of the recent funeral honors I have performed. She sometimes hears feedback from the families and tells us how grateful they are for the service we performed. I’m happy to hear this. I can’t do anything to bring these people back, but I can do my best to honor them. That’s the most any of us can do.