Six gloved hands grip the flag-draped casket bearing one of their own. With ramrod posture and synchronized steps, the Marine Corps Body Bearers ceremoniously carry the Marine veteran to his final resting place. At the grave site, the body bearers stand perfectly still, holding the flag taut above the casket while the chaplain speaks, sometimes for more than an hour. Then silently the six Marines begin to fold the flag. Their slow, deliberate motion magnifies the honor and appreciation reflected in this final act for a fellow Marine.
This ceremony will be executed with the same degree of dignity and expertise more than 500 times a year by the U.S. Marine Body Bearer Section. This small but vital group of Marines, called the "World Famous Body Bearers," currently is composed of 16 Marines within "Bravo" Company, one of the ceremonial drill companies at Marine Barracks (8th and "I"), Washington, D.C.
Their mission is to conduct funerals for Marines, Marine veterans and Marine dependents at Arlington National Cemetery and other cemeteries in the Washington, D.C., area. They also are called upon to perform funerals for senators, members of Congress, heads of state and Presidents. They have earned their reputation, and as all Marines do, they set high standards and train hard to exceed them.
"Funerals are the most important thing we do here, and you have to put that in the context of Presidential Support Duty, Evening Parades, and many other highly visible ceremonial and security missions," proclaimed Colonel Daniel P. O'Brien, Commanding Officer, Marine Barracks, Washington. "This is a very visible symbol of Marines taking care of Marines. We are bringing someone's hero to his or her grave."
Funerals are just one of the duties assigned to the Body Bearer Section. It also is responsible for firing salutes with the 40 mm cannons on the parade deck at 8th and "I" to render honors to visiting dignitaries and foreign military personnel. Every year on the Marine Corps Birthday, body bearers lay wreaths on the Arlington National Cemetery grave sites of former Commandants of the Marine Corps and former Sergeants Major of the Marine Corps. Between the funerals, cannon firing and wreath laying, the body bearers, who are all infantrymen, must maintain their military occupational specialty proficiency by attending classes and going to the field for training.
Sergeant Aaron V. Williamson, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Body Bearer Section, has participated in nearly 600 funerals since joining the section in 2000. Bearing both the physical and emotional weight of the funerals results in a teamwork and brotherhood that Williamson, a native of Daytona Beach, Fla., said is "unparalleled in anything I've ever experienced. It's so honorable, what we do."
In the four years that Williamson has served as a body bearer, he has experienced history in an intensely personal way—through the lives that have been lost. Now just 24 years old, he already has buried many Operation Iraqi Freedom Marines, two with whom he previously had served. In 2001 his unit participated in a two-day ceremony burying the remains of 13 "Makin Island Raiders" of the 2d Marine Raider Battalion, who were killed during a raid on Butaritari Island in 1942. When Central Intelligence Agency agent and former Marine officer Johnny Micheal "Mike" Spann was killed in Afghanistan at the hands of pro-Taliban prisoners in late November 2001, the body bearers escorted his body in a full honors burial at Arlington National Cemetery in December.
Also in 2001 the body bearers traveled to New York City to participate in a memorial service for Sergeant Major Michael S. Curtin, USMCR (Ret), a member of the New York City Police Department who perished in the World Trade Center terrorist attack. In 2003 the unit provided the funeral detail for Felix de Weldon, the creator of the iconic Marine Corps War Memorial sculpture. Sgt Williamson's own family history was touched by his Marine Corps duty when he served as a body bearer at the burial of his grandfather, former Sgt Alex T. Bullinger, USMC.
Every Marine is handpicked for body bearer duty because of the unusual standards he must meet. Co B First Sergeant Leon S. Thornton and Sgt Williamson go on quarterly recruiting trips to Marine Corps bases to conduct a selective screening process for potential candidates. Since the training is intensive, the ideal candidate is one who is early in his enlistment so he can perform the job and teach others before it is time to leave. Marines with experience in the operating forces also are recruited for leadership positions.
There are three initial criteria for candidates: they must be infantrymen (0311), they must pass an initial strength test, and they must have a recommendation from their command. Once these qualifications are met, 1stSgt Thornton said he looks at the Marine's character. Does he have a good attitude? Is he financially fit? Can he think on his feet? Is he morally sound?
These young Marines shoulder an enormous responsibility to represent the Marine Corps in an atmosphere of respect and honor. Being able to maintain ceremonial composure is critical to their success. Captain Torey S. Hinkson, Commanding Officer, Bravo Co, emphasized, "Their job has virtually no room for error, so there has to be an extra level of scrutiny. They must be able to show due respect."
Since the body bearers must carry caskets ranging in weight from 350 to 700 pounds with precision, physical strength is critically important in performing their mission. The initial strength test requires that Marines can bench press 225 pounds for 10 repetitions, do a military press (behind-the-neck seated shoulder press with a barbell) of 135 pounds for 10 repetitions, and do 10 barbell curls with 115 pounds. These are the minimum strength requirements. Once the Marine passes the test, he is expected to continue to progress. There also is a height range requirement, between 5 feet 11 inches and 6 feet 2 inches, to enable the body bearers to carry the casket level.
Once a Marine has been accepted into the unit, he attends Body Bearer Ceremonial Drill School for four months. According to Corporal Benjamin J. Watrous, the Ceremonial Drill School instructor, the training targets the three main aspects of being a body bearer: learning the proper techniques necessary to conduct a funeral, working as a team and weight training. By the end of the third month, a new body bearer is ready to participate in funerals. At the completion of the school, he is issued the "black and gold" official training uniform of the body bearers: black shorts and a black tank top emblazoned in gold with the words "World Famous Body Bearers, The Last to Let You Down."
Although the school lasts four months, the training never ends. The body bearers drill for 15 hours a week in humble surroundings in the lower level of the Marine Barracks parking garage. Overhead, amber lights cast a dull glow on suspended industrial pipes. In a corner there is an assortment of caskets and a caisson used for practice. A wooden platform, which simulates the area around the grave site, is placed in the center amidst the parked cars.
The Marines practice funeral scenarios as they carry the casket and fold the flag. The training is "hard and heavy," Williamson said, explaining that discipline and bearing in practice are critical to success during an actual funeral. The Marines maintain ceremonial composure during the drill from beginning to end despite any complications that might arise.
During a funeral Marines often have to adjust to unexpected circumstances. They may need to navigate around a large gravestone, be wary of uneven surfaces around the grave site, or adjust to a flag that a funeral home has placed on the casket incorrectly. All six Marines must react to these anomalies in a heartbeat, often without commands. The training is designed to hone their situational awareness so they can inconspicuously adjust to these challenges while maintaining their military bearing.
Flag folding is a very precise and poignant procedure occurring at the end of the funeral ceremony, and it is a "tedious and time-consuming task to learn," according to Williamson. It requires many complicated movements that must be executed in tandem with the Marine on the opposite side of the flag. The slow, exaggerated movement must be fluid from the first fold to the final triangular-shaped flag that is presented to the next of kin.
In the large mirror mounted on the cinder-block garage wall, two Marines practiced "hand waves," gestures used in the flag-folding process. In perfect unison the Marines pantomimed the motions, critiqued each other and began again. The movement is an example of "phasing" or doing the exact same movement at the exact same time, usually without the benefit of watching the other Marines. It relies on counting and a lot of practice, according to Lance Corporal Todd J. Fox of Chicago, who said that phasing is the hardest part of the drill.
Teamwork and dedication to drill are common among Marines, but the third aspect of body bearer training, intense weightlifting, is an additional requirement critical to the success of their mission. Unlike the other services that mostly use eight men to carry a casket, the Marine Corps always uses only six men to bear the weight of a casket, which can be as much as 700 pounds. Additionally, Marines honor the deceased by lifting the casket head-high, a move no other service does, which requires great strength. This symbolic act raises the deceased brother Marine above others. Consequently, weightlifting is an integral part of these Marines' training, averaging 10 hours a week.
As in everything the body bearers do, they train as a team. When the lifting gets tough, fellow Marines holler motivating words of encouragement—"Go, Man! It's all you!"—and stand by to spot the lifter. Using mirrors and fellow Marines' advice, the body bearers scrutinize their form and work to maximize each exertion.
The average body weight of a Marine body bearer is 230 pounds. This necessitates specially altered uniforms that are tailored to fit, yet flexible enough to allow for the range of motion necessary to lift the caskets. Marines must monitor their weight training to meet the strength requirements, but still present the smart appearance required of every Marine. Strength training is coupled with health and nutrition classes to help the body bearers achieve their weightlifting goals safely.
While weightlifting is a very large part of the Marines' training, Williamson emphasized, "We are not just a bunch of big guys who lift weights all day. We are a professional group of Marines who honor fallen Marines with respect and dignity." To meet their mission of upholding the history and traditions of the Body Bearer Section and the Marine Corps as a whole, they train hard every day and execute their duties with precision and perfection in honor of all who have served the Marine Corps.
From the letters received from grateful families, the World Famous Marine Body Bearers do indeed uphold the Marine Corps traditions of honor and excellence. David S. Wininger penned these words in appreciation to the body bearers who laid to rest his father-in-law, Robert K. Dore: "A former Marine myself, I cannot express the pride and honor I felt as the funeral procession pulled into the cemetery and the Body Bearer Detail came into view. ... I know the last thing these Marines wanted to do on Christmas weekend was to stand in cold wind and bury an old man. Express to them that they gave this old Marine the greatest farewell he could have asked for."