Marines say farewell to former Commander-in-Chief

9 Jun 2004 | Sgt. Leah A. Cobble

Silence covered the Capital during the city's first complete State Funeral in more than 30 years.  Thousands of people stood by to pay their respects as the casket of 40th President of the United States, Ronald W. Reagan, was escorted up Constitution Avenue.

Among the silent viewers, the curious children, and a heartbroken nation, were Marines; representing what their former Commander-in-Chief loved most about this country. The honor. The courage. The commitment.

The State Funeral attracted more than 150,000 people, crowded the streets and buildings, and exponentially increased the Marine Barracks commitments.

"Participation in the State Funeral for President Reagan will go down in the Barrack's history as a very significant event because of the intensity of our involvement and the national significance of the death of the very popular 40th President," said Col. Daniel P. O'Brien, Commanding Officer, Marine Barracks, Washington. "I was extraordinarily proud of our Marines' performance at every event. We kept our commitment to Marines and their families by meeting every funeral commitment, we were prepared to conduct both the Tuesday Sunset and Friday Evening Parades, and countless other responsibilities."   

During the State Funeral Procession rehearsal June 8, nearly 150 Marines endured the early June heat, between the hours of 8 p.m. and 1:30 a.m., and worked on the drill sequence for their march the following afternoon.

"Although very exhausting, we knew the importance of what we were doing," said Lance Cpl. Rolando Colon, PCS clerk, administration, Headquarters & Service Company.

The following day, as the Former First Lady Nancy Reagan flew with her husband from their home state of California, the city they called home for many years, the heart of a Nation was preparing for their first role in Regan's funeral. Roads were closed off, uniforms were pressed, and shoes were shined.

"Everyone looked sharp and was focused on doing the very best they could to represent all Marines," said O'Brien. "Everyone that I talked to knew that this was going to be something they'd remember for the rest of their life."

And it was. In the stifling heat of the afternoon sun, as the 40th President arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington at 5 p.m., the world tuned in and watched each and every one of them during the historic moment.

"The heat was beating down on me and my feet were killing me. But with all of that, there was no way I was going to let our Former President down," said Colon. "Along with the other Marines standing along Constitution Avenue we were proud to be a part of history."
As the caisson rolled by with the 40th President, his loving wife following behind, the crowd waited to pay tribute to a legend.

"It was the greatest honor of my life," said Cpl. Andrew C. Curtis, body bearer, "B" Company. "I was proud to represent my country and Corps. I don’t know much about his politics, but I do know he was an honorable man."

As one of the Marines to personally escort the President during his stay in Washington, Cpl. Curtis had first-hand experience of this assignment. With the casket weighing upwards of 750 pounds, President Reagan's escort detail transferred him from the caisson and up the 100 plus steps of the Capitol, then inside to the Rotunda where he laid in State for 24 hours.

"It was one of the heaviest caskets I have every helped carry," said Curtis. "It can be a challenge escorting someone so important and influential when you know the whole world is watching. You have to make sure each step of the way, you are representing you country with honor."

Throughout the week Marine Barracks performed every one of their scheduled events, including Arlington funerals and musical performances that were carried out by other body bearers and band members. Even when the entire city shut down at the end of the week of ceremonies, Marines continued to press on. Their work was not complete just yet.

"It was important to be ready to conduct the Evening Parade on the National Day of Mourning for several reasons," said O'Brien. "There would have been no better way to do our part in recognizing President Reagan's legacy than with the many references to his connection to Marines that were worked into that Parade. My brief personal encounters with President Reagan, and my observations of him in the press and through the stories of other Marines, led me to firmly believe that he'd want us to have conducted a Parade on a day dedicated to his memory."