Arlington, Va. --
Shameless tears streaked Linda Townsend’s face as she listened to three volleys of unified gunfire and accepted a folded flag, which symbolizes her husband’s service to his country, during Cpl. Daniel Townsend’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery May 13.
The iconic flag, expertly folded by Marine Corps Body Bearers, was handled carefully and respectfully, and the shots discharged precisely by a Marine firing party, all part of the Corps’ funeral honor guard.
Marine Barracks Washington carries the solemn task of supporting these final services for the national capitol region, many of which are held at Arlington National Cemetery.
The funerals encompass the majority of the Barracks’ mission, despite its much more publicly known Evening and Sunset Parades, which span the summer months.
"Funerals are ongoing all year long," noted Master Sgt. William J. Dixon, the Marine Corps funeral director. "Funerals account for at least 60 percent of the Barracks’ mission. The Barracks averages three funerals a day, 18 a week, 600 a year."
Depending on the type of service, the Barracks provides detachments of Marine marchers, a firing party of seven Marines, a ceremonial bugler from the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, the official Marine Corps Color Guard, the Marine Band and six body bearers, which all march in a procession following the horse-drawn caisson. These services, known as full honor funerals, are reserved for officers and Marine E-9s, as well as Marines killed in action.
Still, the Barracks’ role in the families’ lives does not end when the casket or urn is interred. The funeral director also provides grief counseling for every Marine family that lays a loved one to rest with help from the Barracks.
"Two months after the funeral, I’ll contact the family and make sure the service was good, they got what they needed from the Corps and see if there’s anything else we can help them with," explained Dixon.
However, the actual funeral and post-funeral services are only part of the mission. The Barracks also provides dignified transfer teams to pick up and transfer remains of Marines who die in combat and arrive at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Many of these transfers are preludes to funerals at Arlington.
"The mission of the Dover dignified transfer teams is to welcome our fallen Marines when they come back home for the first time," said Cpl. Rene Rodriguez, the senior transfer team member for Headquarters and Service Company. "I’ve done 26 transfers since I joined the team in October 2009. It’s a different experience to care for your fellow Marines."
Dignified transfers differ from funerals in that they are held in the combat utility uniform, opposed to dress blue uniforms, since the deceased are transported from combat zones.
Though funerals can often occur long after the individual has passed on, dignified transfers arrive at Dover as their first stop from Afghanistan, Iraq or foreign hospitals. Emotions can run high during transfers, especially since families are usually present.
"I try to block everything out; sometimes you hear the family crying and you just have to keep your bearing," said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez recalled a particularly emotional assignment in February 2010 when his team took part in a transfer of four Marines, while 40 distraught family members stood watching.
"While we were carrying the casket down the ramp of the C-17, I heard a little girl asking her mother ‘why?’ I heard a father yell out ‘Michael, I love you’… That was a very hard day. When we march out with the caskets, we aren’t supposed to show any emotion, but that day we couldn’t help it. Afterward, everyone was quiet."
When the plot is filled or the columbarium slot sealed, everything that proceeded those moments will remain with the families and friends forever. Barracks Marines are responsible for ensuring those memories are everything the families deserve. Such matters are not taken lightly and receive the utmost attention.
"When I’m down there in my ceremonial blue uniform, I must look the best, think the best and expect the best of myself and my Marines," said Dixon. "These commitments can be emotional and trying, but we must respect our fallen brothers and sisters as they deserve. There is no greater privilege than to honor these Marines and to provide comfort to their families in their time of need."