FORT LEE, Va. – Of all the additional duties Soldiers perform over the course of their career, few are more meaningful than the funeral honors detail, a deeply felt opportunity to pay “the last full measure of respect” to fallen veterans and active duty military personnel.
Properly performing the function is all about precision – the type that can only be achieved through countless practice walkthroughs of the steps required to execute the time-honored expressions of a grateful nation: the playing of “Taps;” preparing and presenting the colors to next of kin; firing weapons during a gun salute; and acting as pallbearers as required.
The Fort Lee Casualty Assistance Center is responsible for the funeral honor details here. Amber Hendricks is the CAC’s memorial affairs coordinator/casualty trainer. Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Salisbury is the CAC noncommissioned officer in charge. Both are responsible for setting up and overseeing the practice sessions for military personnel tasked with the duty.
Twenty Soldiers per month serve on the detail. The CAC rotates the requirement every 30 days amongst installation units. The outgoing Soldiers are responsible for training the teams replacing them.
Training is conducted the last five business days of the month. Day one is mostly administrative, and “teams are oriented on preforming both abbreviated military honors (a 2-3 Soldier detail) and full military honors (7-8 Soldier detail)” during days two and three, Hendricks said.
“They also walk through plane-side honors and memorize the verbiage for the flag presentation to the next of kin.”
Team members perform live honors on the fourth day, even firing blank rounds to perfect the gun salute, according to Hendricks. Day five is reserved for wrap-up training and Soldiers are required to bring in their assembled dress uniforms for final adjustments and inspection.
Certification of each individual’s ability to perform all detail functions is the final step.
“It’s a very controlled and practiced process that is so important and vital to the mission,” Salisbury said, “because, if you’ve ever served and know what it means to serve, it’s imperative you show family members that lasting impression their loved ones honored their country and they are deserving of respect.”
Throughout the course of the month, Salisbury further elaborated, detail teams typically participate in 30-45 abbreviated and full-honor memorial ceremonies and funerals within a radius of roughly 600 miles. Requests for funeral honors details are such that it can overwhelm installations in close proximity to the deceased, he also said, “but if we’re available, we’ll be there to serve.”
Staff Sgt. Patty Gardiner from Bravo Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion, was among the group of incoming personnel during an April 28 training session. The Soldier of nine years pointed out that she wasn’t directed to be there, but rather volunteered for it.
“I think it’s an honor to be present as a member of the U.S. Army and to show how much we care for those who have served,” said the native of Palau. “It’s an honor to recognize the fallen and remember who they are, and it makes me feel like this is something bigger than myself.”
Salisbury, who is close to retirement, shared Gardiner’s sentiment.
“I think it’s one of the most honorable things I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “It’s amazing. I love doing it. I actually started my career doing this as a young private, and I’m finishing it the same way. A lot has changed, but it’s up to us to make sure veterans and active duty service members – anyone who has served – get a dignified farewell.”
According to Public Law 106-65, any eligible veteran can receive a military funeral honors ceremony.
For more information about the funeral honors program, call the Casualty Assistance Center at 804-734-6606 or visit home.army.mil/lee/index.php/about/Garrison/directorate-human-resources/casualty-assistance.
Information also is available thru the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs website at www.cem.va.gov/military_funeral_honors.asp.