MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- As six Marines in dress blues carry a casket down the aisle of seated guests, mourners cry, rounds are fired, and a crisply folded American flag is presented to a loved one; this becomes one of the most powerful and symbolic memories a person may carry with them from that event.
For the 16 Combat Center Marines of Headquarters Battalion who volunteered for honor guard duty, they could be heading out on any given day, at any given time and at a moment’s notice to perform funeral honors, according to Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Brenneis, a Center Magazine Area receipt issue chief and staff noncommissioned officer who is the new coordinator for the detail.
“If a Marine was discharged honorably, we will surely try our best to give them the full honors that are available,” said Brenneis.
“This is a moral duty that we have as Marines to ensure appropriate honors are rendered to those that have gone before us along with those currently in harm’s way,” said 1st Sgt. Thomas E. Fitzgerald, first sergeant of Alpha Company, Headquarters Battalion.
The Department of Defense mandates that a minimum of three core elements must be provided at a military honors funeral: the folding of the flag, the presentation of the flag by a member of the deceased veteran’s parent service, and the playing of Taps.
“We always try to give them the best we can. Normally, we will provide six Marines to carry the casket, those Marines will also fold and present the flag, play Taps, have seven Marines with rifles fire three rounds each, and an NCO to perform sword manual,” said Brenneis.
Although the number of rounds fired by the seven Marines equals 21, this is not an actual 21-gun salute, which is reserved for the president and foreign heads of state.
The salute is an echo of the old custom of stopping the battle to remove the dead. Once each army had cleared the bodies, each would fire three volleys to signal they were ready to go back to the fight.
“I volunteered for this,” said Pfc. Robert D. Cain, a newcomer to the honor guard and personnel clerk with the Installation Personnel Administration Center and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., native. “I think it’s a true honor to be a part of this.”
“When I first heard about it, I thought to myself what a pain it sounded like,” Cain continued. “Then I thought back to when I was a child, and that’s what made that funeral so special. Especially the gun salute and the dress blues, that’s what got my attention. The idea of being able to honor another Marine, to be a Marine and fire off three rounds for him. It means a lot.”
Although there seems to be little payoff for volunteering for such a duty, it does have its rewards, according to Staff Sgt. Tim A. Chambers, outgoing coordinator for the guard and administrative law chief at the Staff Judge Advocate’s office.
“Every moment of this is incredibly powerful to the family,” Chambers said. “You can always hear the gasps of the family when the weapons go off. It’s amazing.”
“There really is not much official recognition for doing this,” Chamber added. “But you’ll feel good when the family comes and gives you hugs and thanks you for what you have done. Often times the family follows us as we march out, and they will stop us and say, ‘Thanks. I was a Marine back in …’ whatever time and place. It really makes you proud to be able to give so much to them.”
Combat Center Marines who volunteer for this duty are aware that it takes a large commitment and the willingness to drop plans and make sacrifices to make sure proper honors are paid to those who have gone before.
“This is a huge commitment,” said Chambers. “You are essentially on-call all the time at any time. And that includes weekends, holidays and basically any day of the week to get dressed up and perform these honors.”
“There have been times where we were informed through Headquarters, Marine Corps in the morning and had to be there that afternoon,” said Brenneis.
“What that also means is that you must have your uniforms ready to go at all times, which Marines should do anyway,” added Chambers. “But we are working on getting dress blues issued for detail members so it’s not an out-of-pocket expense.”
To thank the honor guard for their services and efforts, the base command is planning a luncheon.
“These Marines are set to have lunch with the sergeant major and the general coming up soon,” said Chambers.
Another obstacle the Marines must overcome is the fact that every funeral is in a different place, has a different schedule of events, different wishes of the families and different complications.
“Adapt and overcome,” said Chambers. “That’s what we do. You just have to be very flexible, because our job here is to cater to the needs of the family.”
“Sometimes it will be a cremation and there is no casket, sometimes we may only escort family members, sometimes the family may carry in the casket, and we perform the honors. There really is no telling what we may run into next,” said Chambers. “Sometimes the ledge that the casket is on can be extremely narrow. But nobody has fallen in yet.”
Marines in the detail are currently in a process of reorganizing to have more frequent practices to ensure readiness, according to Brenneis.
“Our goal and mine as the coordinator is to have practices once a week and to make things run a little more smoothly,” Brenneis said.
“We train every member of the detail to be able to perform each of the jobs,” continued Brenneis. “Everyone learns how to fire the rifles, how to march in the casket, and how to fold and present the flag.”
Noncommissioned officers also practice sword manual of arms.
“With Memorial Day coming up, we already have some events planned out in the area,” said Brenneis. “We will be at the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] of Twentynine Palms and the Yucca Valley VFW on May 30. We’ll be there with our rifle detail, the color guard, the band, and the chaplain.”