Photo Information

Cpl. Jerry Berning, body bearer from Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., carries a casket during a funeral ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery Oct. 24. The ceremony, supported by the Barracks, was held for a group of six Marines who died in a CH-53 helicopter crash in Afghanistan on January 19, 2012. The deceased are Capt. Daniel Bartle, Capt. Nathan McHone, Master Sgt. Travis Riddick, Cpl. Jesse Stites, Cpl. Kevin Reinhard and Cpl. Joseph Logan.

Photo by Cpl. Mondo Lescaud

The Last to Let You Down

3 Nov 2014 | Capt. Adam Maddock Marine Barracks

For the majority of the Marines stationed at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C. the only prolonged interaction they have with the Body Bearer Section is when they see them in their trademark black and gold physical training uniform in the gym lifting immense amounts of weight.

Very few people realize what they do on a daily basis and the incredible amount of hard work and dedication they put into their profession.  Saying that being a Body Bearer is just about lifting weights, is like saying that being a rifleman is just about pulling a trigger, it isn’t anywhere near the full picture.

A typical day for the Body Bearer Section involves early morning drill in the Barracks lower parking lot, where they work with the Ceremonial Drill School Marines who are training to become Body Bearers. In the stuffy, hot corner of the underground parking, they work on the intricate drill movements that are required to perform the myriad of funerals that occur at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Being able to execute the proper steps and hand movements is one thing, however, being able to do that with a 500 pound casket, for 75 yards, with hundreds of eyes on you, is entirely another,” said Lance Cpl. Michael Ryder, senior Ceremonial Drill School instructor. “It is something we work up to with the CDS Marines, and it starts in the weight room and transitions down here to drill.”  

After morning drill, depending on the timing of ceremonial commitments which can be upward of five funerals a day, the Bearers descend on the weight room and lift in groups throughout the day. What truly makes them unique is how accountable they are to each other. On a daily basis, it is a corporal section leader who directs and supervises them, but individually they consistently push each other to always be better.

Whether in the weight room, the parking lot, or at Arlington, they always hold true to their motto, “The Last to Let You Down.”

When I arrived as the section officer-in-charge a year ago, I asked the section leader, Cpl. Sadiq Chaudhri, what the motto meant to him. His answer reflects the zeal that the Body Bearers have for their duties.

“It applies not only to how we honor our fallen and deceased Marine warriors that we lay to rest in Arlington, but in how we act towards each other, how we motivate each other and hold each other accountable to reflect the high standards of what it means to be a Body Bearer,” said Chaudhri. 

The Bearers are steeped in tradition and lore. Often times, however, that can create stagnation and stymie creativity within an organization.

I knew the future was bright for the Bearers when the senior members of the section approached me and weren’t satisfied with the “that’s how we’ve always done it” mentality.  Over the past nine months, the Bearer leadership has revamped and evolved the CDS process to create a more systematic and efficient way to transform Marines into Body Bearers.

They worked with the United States Naval Academy strength coaches to validate their weight lifting routines, created quantifiable metrics to evaluate CDS progress, and instituted a comprehensive performance counseling system.  These improvements have reduced the time to certify a Body Bearer from six to eight months to four to five months. At the same time, the high standards of what it takes to become a Bearer have not declined or waivered.

I have personally come to understand the moxie and dedication that is needed to not only become a Body Bearer, but also the fortitude and resolve necessary to sustain and grow personally and professionally once that title is earned.

Unless you have played high-level athletics, it is difficult to comprehend the physical grind and the mental fatigue that is experienced by long, strenuous days in the unforgiving heat or cold at Arlington and then returning to the Barracks to exhaust their bodies in the gym. It is a daily exercise in dedication. But to them it is extraordinarily simple.

To them the solemn honor they undertake, the pride in their craft, and the loyalty to each other means more than strained backs, weary legs or fatigued minds. To them, it has always been, and will always be, about those they lay to rest for the final time in Arlington National Cemetery. To us, they will always be “The Last to Let You Down.”