Friday, November 16, 2001

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. The sun is just climbing into the sky as the 13 Marines assemble at the staging area for the day’s mission. The war in Afghanistan is not far from their thoughts, but that is not their assignment. On this morning, they are decked out in their green dress alphas, their shoes buffed to a high polish, brass buckles glinting in the Carolina sun. These 13 are members of the post funeral detail.
“Our mission is to give honors,” says Lance Cpl. Charles Palmer IV of Reston.
Most of the Marines in this unit are fresh-faced 20-somethings, too young to know anything about combat, much less death. Some, like Lance Cpl. Alexander Jackson of Tallahassee, Fla., had never been to a funeral before joining the detail. In the past month, he has attended more than 20.
About 570,000 veterans die each year in this country, the Department of Defense says. World War II veterans are dying at a rate of more than 1,100 a day, by some estimates.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush has tried to remind Americans that life goes on. So does death. And there is comfort in ritual, perhaps especially in a world at war.
On this particular day, the Marines are honoring James L. Owens, an Army veteran of World War II. They are driving about two hours, to a little farming community called Bonnetsville.
Sgt. George R. Alstat of Centralia, Ill., is fresh from guard duty at the brig when he joins the funeral detail outside the bachelor noncommissioned officers’ barracks. As he cinches up his patent-leather sword belt, he is already two hours into a 24-hour workday.
“You got the shined brass?” Gunnery Sgt. Robert Dowdle asks, referring to the spent M-16 cartridges presented to the veteran’s family after a salute.
“Yup,” says Sgt. Alstat, pulling out a shell that he has saved from a previous funeral and polished to a gleaming finish.
Funeral detail is something members do besides their regular full-time duties. One member works in the post office. Another is a computer-software specialist. Sgt. Dowdle is a counselor at the brig.
Detail members normally get less than a day’s notice before a burial. Sometimes, it’s less than 12 hours.
Lance Cpl. David Rosenbaum has started coming to work at legal services in his dress alphas crisp green trousers and blouse over a khaki shirt and tie so he will be ready at a moment’s notice. This morning, he has put in about three hours drafting Marines’ wills before reporting for the detail.
“Yeah, we put in a lot of extra time,” the Annapolis native says. “But you’re doing what has to be done.”
Most times, the Marines know nothing about the person they’re going to honor, other than name, rank and branch of service. In the van on the way to Bonnetsville, members of the detail learn a little bit about Mr. Owens.
Mr. Owens was a 19-year-old farmer when he enlisted in the Army at Fort Bragg on May 1, 1944. D-Day was still a month away.
The top brass at the time had little faith in the black soldier as a fighting man. So Mr. Owens landed in the Quartermaster Corps, the place considered best suited for blacks in the then-segregated Army.
Lance Cpl. Royce Andrews, one of the funeral detail’s two black members, has never really confronted that part of the service’s history.
“He fought for a country that didn’t really want him to fight at first,” the Greenville man says as he pilots the van past fields of bursting cotton bolls.
But if it bothered James Owens, he never complained about it. He didn’t brag about his service either, says his son.
When Donald Owens was a little boy, he watched the John Wayne movies and wanted his father to tell him his own war stories. His father always would find some way to change the subject.
“You learn to leave certain things alone,” says Mr. Owens, a Baptist minister from Belton, S.C. “And I left that alone.”
His father did say he had been to Paris. “All I can remember is how sweet he said the city smelled,” he says.
It wasn’t until the son came home to prepare for the funeral and dug out the discharge papers that he realized his father had been awarded two Bronze Stars one for the Central European campaign, the other for the Rhineland Campaign.
During a bathroom and snack stop, Cpl. Pete Cruz smokes a cigarette and thinks how some in the World War I generation thought they were fighting “the war to end all wars.”
But then came Mr. Owens’ war, World War II, and Cpl. Cruz, of San Jose, Calif., ticks off conflicts that followed. “After that, there was Korea, Vietnam. So it seems like the war is never really ended.”
He grinds out the butt with his polished shoe and climbs back into the van.
The service is already under way when the detail arrives at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Sgt. Dowdle, the unit’s old man at 36, positions eight Marines on the side stairs to wait.
While the mourners listen to Donald Owens’ eulogy in the air-conditioned sanctuary, the Marines stand in the 80-degree heat at parade rest, feet apart, hands clasped behind their backs.
When the doors open, the Marines snap to attention, breaking formation only to help elderly mourners down the stairs. After everyone has left the church, they carefully load the casket into the hearse, then jump in the vans and race to the cemetery.
When they reach the grave site, the Marines jump out as if they’re storming a beach.
“All right, Marines, need to be quick now,” Sgt. Dowdle shouts.
Cpl. Rosenbaum already is standing at attention with his M-16. He says he gets butterflies before each funeral, but now the training has kicked in.
“I have confidence in the other Marines around me and myself that we’re going to do good every time,” he says.
Cpls. Cruz and Kevin Dishong grab the ends of the flag and hold it aloft. Thus begins a ritual whose history stretches back to the Civil War.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please prepare yourselves for the rendering of honors,” Sgt. Dowdle says. “Rifle detail. Fire three volleys.”
With Sgt. Alstat directing the action at saberpoint, the seven rifles crack in unison. As the casket slowly descends into the ground, Cpl. Dave Bradford raises his silver trumpet and plays taps just as he did two months ago at his own grandfather’s funeral.
With the tune still hanging in the air, Sgt. Dowdle supervises the folding of the flag. It takes a full seven minutes to caress the cloth into a perfect triangle, with only the blue field and five white stars showing.
Sgt. Alstat sheaths his saber. He pulls three highly polished brass shells from his belt, one at a time, and holds each aloft.
“God,” he says, presenting the first shell.
“Country,” he shouts, presenting the second.
“United States Army,” he says, and all are carefully tucked into the folded flag.
Sgt. Dowdle marches back to Lula Owens, James’ widow. He kneels before her and looks directly into her teary eyes. He is not supposed to make eye contact, but he wants her to know this is more than just a job to him.
“On behalf of the president of the United States and the United States Army, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service,” he says.
“God bless you,” the widow replies.
Sgt. Dowdle marches away silently. The preacher invites the detail back to the church for supper, but the Marines have to get back to base.
They opt for a quick stop at McDonald’s.
Back at Camp LeJeune, Cpl. Rosenbaum has wills to draw up. Sgt. Dowdle has other burial details to plan. Sgt. Alstat has gathered the brass from the salute fired at Mr. Owens’ funeral.
He will shine it for the next hero.

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