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 rest.
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.

Roger Mallory    Then  and  Now
HHB, 6/27th Artillery
Jan 69 to Sep 70



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