From the Heart
A few months ago, while at work, I happened past the flag pole and noticed the
light had burned out. I work nights and grabbed a young coworker to help me
lower the flag; he asked why?” I said “The sun is setting and the colors need to
be lowered before dark.” Again he asked “Why?” Me being me began to berate him
on his lack of knowledge concerning old glory, and as I dragged him to the
flagpole I tried to explain the reason behind it. I could tell by the glazed
look in his eyes he didn’t care, but went along just to shut me up. I told him
what he needed to do in order for me to fold it properly and he followed my
instructions, not wanting another tongue lashing.
As I folded the flag I was reminded of the time I spent at Fort Leonard Wood
after returning from Vietnam. I don’t know how it happened, but I was chosen for
a detail that, at the time, I thought of as a pain in the ass. I see it now as
an honor with experiences I will forever treasure. I am talking about “Funeral
Detail.” At first it didn’t sound like anything I wanted to be a part of, but
unlike my usual duties, I accepted this roll and did all I could to present
myself as a professional.
I considered myself fortunate to be on the firing squad and not a pallbearer,
that way I didn’t have any contact with the families and felt detached from the
whole process. Each funeral was unique to itself, not only with the individuals,
but the areas they lived in. The firing squad worked well for me and as time
went on I had several interesting experiences.
One of the first funerals I participated in we were sent to Jefferson Barracks
in St. Louis for the funeral of a W.W.II Veteran. We never traveled in uniform;
we always dressed in to our greens when we arrived at the cemetery, or funeral
home. Everyone loaded onto a bus with the Officer leading the way in the station
wagon that carried the rifles. The funeral was to be around 10:00 a.m. and we
arrived at a small mall not far from the cemetery an hour or so before. The
Lieutenant handed out our rifles, and then the pallbearers took their uniforms
and went with him in the wagon, leaving the rest of us to meander around until
the time to leave for the cemetery. It was something to behold, seven guys in
civvies walking around the mall with M-16’s slung over their shoulders. We got
some very strange looks from the patrons, as well as the shop keepers. We, on
the other hand, were having a good time freaking them out.
In Kansas City we stayed at a Holliday Inn after arriving the day before. This
gave us plenty of time to get drunk and hit on the young ladies we met.
Everything was going fine until our bugler out-did himself by getting plastered
and decided to walk the hall playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The
manager of the hotel failed to see the humor in it; his bugle was confiscated by
the Lieutenant and we were all chastised for our actions. It must have been
because we cheered him on, thus keeping the normal folks from getting to sleep.
Before we left each time we practiced making sure we had our timing down so
there would be no miscues. We all knew our responsibilities and worked like a
well oiled machine. Except for the sergeant giving the order to fire, I was the
ranking member of the squad, and the only one that had been in Vietnam. The rest
were E-2’s and E-3’s that were fresh out of A.I.T.
There was one funeral I will remember as long as I live. At the time I was an
instructor in radio procedure and as far as I knew was not on the list for
funerals that week. To my surprise someone came to the classroom and informed me
I had a funeral to go to. I hurried to the barracks, threw some clothes into my
suitcase and made the bus just before it left. Needless to say there were a lot
of remarks from the rest on board about my being late. I asked where we were
going and the driver said Independence, MO, and that was all he knew about it.
Everyone figured this to be another W.W.II Vet, but little did we know how far
from the truth that was.
When we arrived it was getting late and we all were taken to a hotel where we
were assigned rooms and met in the restaurant for supper. The Lieutenant went
through the list of names as we entered to be seated. I gave my name and he
looked on the list, and asked, “What the hell are you doing here?” “I was told I
had to be here, sir.” He said it was alright and I would take the place of
someone that had never been on the detail before.
Next day the liaison officer gave us a little background on the young man. I
don’t recall what unit he was with, but he only had two weeks left in country
and volunteered for a routine patrol, if there was such a thing in Vietnam.
Their patrol walked into an ambush and he was killed. This was the first funeral
of someone from Vietnam, and that information alone caused each of us to take
this funeral more seriously than others we had been on.
The soldier I replaced was sent to the top of a hill to watch for the funeral
procession and let us know when it was arriving. When he gave us the signal we
all snapped to attention awaiting the order to fire. When the order came, my
rifle misfired on the second volley. Thanks to all my previous practice I knew
not to panic, and went though the motions for the last volley. We were given the
order for present arms, and when taps ended we walked towards the bus in single
file at trail arms.
After the family left the Lieutenant and pallbearers drove to the bus in the
wagon. They boarded the bus and the pallbearers had some interesting things to
say about all the good looking girls that attended the funeral. All of us on the
firing squad listened with mouths watering at the descriptions we were being
fed. Then the Lieutenant boarded the bus and took it all away with his
announcement. The mother wanted to meet the honor guard, and the family invited
us to their house. Most of us didn’t quite know what to make of this, we had
never had a request like that before and weren’t sure how we should act.
The bus ride to their house was very quiet; I stared out the window watching as
we made turn after turn, going into a rundown part of the city. Finally we came
to a stop in front of a small house with a broken down fence and bare yard. The
street was filled with people who had come to pay their respects, and I could
see the liaison officer talking to the mother. I felt very strange seeing all
this as it wasn’t something I was accustomed to and it bothered me.
Our Lieutenant had us line up in the bus before exiting, but gave no
instructions on how we should proceed. When I stood up, I felt weak-kneed and
would have rather faced another Quan Loi attack than a mother that had just lost
her son. As each man approached her he snapped to attention and gave a perfect
salute. After the salute she shook their hand and thanked them for their
service. It took every bit of strength I had to keep from breaking down as she
took my hand. I could feel her frailness as we shook, and then I looked into the
eyes of someone who hadn’t slept or eaten much in a very long time. These were
the eyes of someone who had spent countless hours crying over the loss of her
son, and she still wanted to thank us for our service to our country. At that
moment I thought of how
Brupbacher's mom must have looked
the day when he was laid to
The ride back to Fort Leonard Wood was a very quiet and sobering trip. There was
none of the usual loud clowning around; it was as if everyone on the bus had
been affected by the events of the day and wanted nothing more than to put it
behind them. As for me, I have carried these images for almost forty years and
it is now time to share them with you on this Memorial Day.