By Derek Turner
The sun is new in the sky above a small Army post in Northern Virginia when Sergeant Bryan Ellis pulls out his cellphone. He opens the browser to a Google search and types in a name. He does this often and on a Tuesday in early December, these are the things he will find:
Staff Sergeant Kenneth W. Bennett came from Southern California, a town of 50,000 called Glendora, just east of Los Angeles. He graduated from Glendora High School in 2004. He had a wife named Mandi and a pretty 2-year-old daughter with curly blond hair named Lili Grace. Mandi is pregnant with their second child—a child he will never meet.
Bennett died on November 10 in Sperwan Gar, Afghanistan.
He was a member of the 53rd Ordnance Company, 3rd Ordnance Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. It was his job to find and disable the bombs before they could kill his fellow soldiers. This is how he lived—he served three deployments in Afghanistan—and this is how he died.
He was 26 years old.
Ellis puts his phone away. As a member of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment—The Old Guard—at Fort Meyer, it will be his job, and that of his fellow soldiers, to escort the staff sergeant to his final resting place—the sacred ground of Arlington National Cemetery.
Members of The Old Guard carry out thousands of funerals each year at Arlington. Four companies rotate weekly and when on primary duty, the company might conduct a dozen funerals a day.
Any service member killed in action is entitled to a full honors funeral at Arlington, as are officers and those who rise to the highest enlisted rank. An Army full honors funeral typically involves more than 60 soldiers from The Old Guard and the ceremonial element of the Army band, Pershing’s Own, performing various duties at the grave site.
Section 60 is the part of the cemetery reserved for the fallen from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Bennett will be buried in Section 60.
Ellis said he tries to learn about each person his company buries, but when an active-duty soldier is laid to rest, every member of Charlie Company knows the name and the story.
“Those KIAs, they don’t come very often but when they do, they’re very emotional,” Ellis said.
Though many Old Guard soldiers are recruited straight out of basic training, many are not. Ellis previously served in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division. When he buries a contemporary, one thought always finds him—it could have been me.
Pride and Sorrow
Two black-and-yellow Army buses with “Myer Flyer” scrawled on the side deliver the Charlie Company soldiers from their headquarters building to the cemetery. On the ride in, they stand—always stand—so as not to wrinkle their crisp blue uniforms.
When they disembark at a hilltop staging area, it’s warmer than it should be, 58 degrees with a light breeze from the south and a few thin, white clouds spread across the sky. It is nearly 11 a.m. and the funeral will begin soon.
The soldiers break into designated groups—the color guard and escort platoon, the firing party, the casket team—to go over last-minute instructions.
First Sergeant James Lower is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the mission. During the funeral, he’ll stand in front of the family. Near its conclusion, he’ll accept the folded American flag from the casket team. It appears he’ll have to do a job he dreads. He’ll have to take that folded flag, kneel and present it to the fallen soldier’s wife, while reciting those famous words, the ones about a grateful nation—equal parts pride and sorrow.
He does not want to have to say those words. It’s the worst part of his job, the moment when the emotion comes so close to the surface he can barely stand it.
“You’ve got to lock your heart in a freezer and just say it the way it’s written,” he said. “You can let it jerk at your heart later, but in that moment, you have to be professional.”
On a not-so-distant day, Lower will volunteer to say those words. A soldier he had known for years and mentored in the ways of the Army has died and will be buried at Arlington. That funeral will be personal for Lower, something that happens rarely if ever for Old Guard soldiers.
But he will volunteer his team to carry out that funeral and volunteer himself to oversee it.
“I raised this kid in the Army,” he said. “For me to be able to bestow that honor back to him and officially welcome him to Arlington National Cemetery … that’s my way of saying goodbye.”
Today, he gets a reprieve. Major General Leslie C. Smith, commander of the 20th Support Command, has arrived and will present the flag to Mandi Bennett.
The clip-clop of horseshoes on pavement announces the arrival of the caisson, carrying a flag-draped casket that bears the remains of Staff Sergeant Kenneth W. Bennett.
Timeless and Perfect
Six massive white horses, harnessed two wide and three deep, guide the caisson. In the lead are Jerry and Roosevelt, followed by Minnie and Babe in the middle, or swing position, and Amos and Sarge in the back, wheel position. Riders sit atop Jerry, Minnie and Amos. A seventh horse, Patton, is ridden alongside the team.
Of the 65 caisson horses, about 35 pull cemetery duty. The rest are training horses. All are the most pampered members of The Old Guard. They are bathed and brushed each morning. They eat mountains of feed twice daily and, in between, snack on hay.
Sergeant Richard Luchau grew up around horses back home in Montana, and when he arrived at The Old Guard he gravitated to caisson. He works in the farrier shop where he keeps the horses’ hooves trimmed and healthy. Every six weeks, the horses get a new pair of steel shoes, nailed in place, with a layer of borium added for traction.
The animals, ranging from 900 pounds to 2,100 pounds, live in a well-equipped stable and are cared for constantly. The soldiers who work with the horses are impossible to miss, mainly because, if they’re not on a mission in the cemetery, they don’t look like soldiers at all.
One of the perks of the job, Luchau says, is that he rarely has to wear an Army uniform. Maybe once a month, he figures, for an awards ceremony or some special occasion. Most days he looks like a regular on the rodeo circuit.
The Army issues caisson soldiers two pairs of Ariat boots, two pairs of Wrangler jeans, four black button-up shirts and a cowboy hat. Unusual attire for an unusual job.
The horses are decked out, too.
All of the tack is made from scratch in The Old Guard’s leather shop, adjacent to the stable.
Eugene Burkes came to the leather shop as an active-duty soldier in 1981. It had always been a transient assignment like so many jobs in the Army, but he managed to hang on there until he retired in 1996. Then he was called back to run the place as a civilian. He oversees a handful of Old Guard soldiers who keep the shop churning, turning out the saddles, breast plates, harnesses and other equipment to make sure the horses and riders worry only about their jobs, never their gear.
Each piece is rendered according to detailed specifications laid out in manuals written in the early 1900s. The end product is always the same, even as the process for making it has evolved.
“When I first got here, the only thing we had was needles and thread,” Burkes said. “And we got it done.”
Now the needle and thread work is largely replaced by an industrial Atler sewing machine, which does most jobs maybe seven or eight times faster. But Burkes still insists that each soldier who passes through learns first how to do the job by hand. Machines break, after all.
“Outside of this building, you don’t find too much stuff that’s handcrafted. That’s why I want them to know the trade,” he said. “We want to be able to show these guys how to grab a piece of leather, how to select the proper size, the proper part of the hide and take it from scratch and build it. I make sure they go through that and that’s a trying period for most of them. But 80 percent of them, they get every bit of it down in three or four years.”
Burkes has an intimate knowledge of just about every job in the caisson platoon. He rarely gets out to the cemetery anymore to see his work in use, but he knows what it should look like. He knows that if he and his soldiers have done their jobs right, the horses and riders will look timeless, perfect.
Perfection is a lofty goal for a 2,000-pound animal, but caisson soldiers say they treat the horses like equals, like teammates, and when well taken care of, the horses are as reliable as any man.
“They’ve all got their own personalities and they can be difficult,” said Sergeant Gustavo Diaz, strolling through the stable. “But when they cross into the cemetery, they know what they’re doing.”
Music for the Moment
At the grave site, dozens of people are gathered to pay their respects to Bennett, many in military uniforms, others in dark suits and dresses. They hear the procession before they see it.
From the hill above comes the sound of drums, a rhythmic, respectful march as the ceremonial band leads the caisson down Marshall Drive, bears right onto York Drive and stops across from the grave site.
The members of Pershing’s Own are immediately recognizable in their blue uniforms and red caps. The distinct uniforms date to the Revolutionary War days when musicians needed to be easily identified during battle.
When they descend the hill at Arlington, they march in six rows of three. The usual collection of instruments includes trombone, trumpet, clarinet, euphonium, sousaphone, French horn, piccolo, saxophone, drums and bass. It’s meant to represent a traditional band in miniature, to provide a moving soundtrack as the credits roll on a hero’s life.
Bennett has been cremated, so a small drawer is opened in the back of the full-sized mock casket and a wooden urn holding his remains is removed and carried to the grave site. Any time a soldier’s remains are in motion during a funeral, the band is playing.
For Bennett, it’s a Protestant hymn, but the band has played all kinds of music in these moments.
“We take family requests whenever possible,” said Master Sergeant Scott Little, a senior drum major. “We’ve done things from When the Saints Go Marching In to a school alma mater. Otherwise, we’ll know what their religious preference is, if it’s Catholic or Jewish or Protestant, and we have tunes in our repertoire to reflect those.”
Though band members go through the same basic training as every other soldier, they are strictly musicians and not warfighters.
“If I have to pick up an M16, we’re in a lot of trouble,” said Sergeant First Class Craig Arnold, a bass trombone player and assistant drum major.
Basic training was the beginning and end of his weapons training, but Arnold has been working since childhood to perfect his craft as a musician. He joined the Army more than a decade ago, but not before getting an undergraduate degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. He has played professionally around the world.
His story is not unique among his peers in Pershing’s Own. Nearly all have advanced music degrees and have survived an ultracompetitive auditioning process. For many, the Army band is one of only a handful of places where they can earn a living playing their instrument of choice. A college professor once told Staff Sergeant Tim Royster, only half-jokingly, that it’s easier to get a job as a congressman than as a sousaphone player.
If a love of music drew them to the Army, the sense of honor and duty in the ceremonies keeps them there for decades.
Members of the ceremonial band range in age from early 20s to 60 years old. The schedule is relentless. In the summer, it’s so hot that their feet get sunburned beneath plastic shoes. The winter can get cold enough to render their instruments nearly useless.
They do it because the fallen soldiers have earned it, a truth never more apparent than when a lone bugler steps out to perform the 24 notes of Taps.
“You notice this early on, when they start to play Taps, it starts to sink in to the family,” Arnold said. “When they hear Taps being played, it finally hits home and someone starts crying. You realize how meaningful it is.”
A Grateful Nation
A full honors funeral leaves little room for personalization. Wistful reminiscences have their place—during memorial ceremonies at Arlington’s chapels, in hometown churches or at far-flung forward operating bases. A funeral ceremony at an Arlington grave site is all ritual, tradition and symbolism. And there is no greater symbol than the flag that fallen soldier fought for.
There are five full-sized American flags at Bennett’s funeral.
The first is draped over the silver mock casket that rides atop the caisson. When a member of The Old Guard casket team removes the urn holding Bennett’s remains, a second soldier carrying a tightly folded American flag walks side-by-side with him to the grave site. Two more members of the casket team clutch identical folded flags.
A short distance away, the fifth American flag is held aloft by the color guard, along with the regimental flag.
In Charlie Company, the responsibility for carrying the national flag falls to either Sergeant Brian Ellis or Sergeant Stephan Knight. Theirs is the most prestigious job in the color guard and they’ve earned it. They are the best. They must stand straight and still as an oak throughout the ceremony, never twitching, never flinching, holding strong when a gust of wind threatens to lift the flag like a kite. Or when, as has been known to happen, a spider begins spinning its web off the bill of the soldier’s cap.
In front of a row of folding chairs designated for family is a pedestal lined in green felt. Atop it now sit Bennett’s remains. Members of the casket team lining either side of the pedestal slowly, deliberately, unfold an American flag and hold it taut above the pedestal as the chaplain delivers his message and recounts Bennett’s military service and honors.
Everyone present is asked to stand. Civilians place their hands over their hearts. Those in uniform salute the flag.
Staff Sergeant Michael Riley calls the cadence.
Ready, aim, fire
Ready, aim, fire.
Ready, aim, fire.
The three volleys are delivered with precision from the M14s of the seven firing party members. Riley, who volunteered for The Old Guard after two Afghanistan deployments, has been on the job for only three months, but this moment has been rehearsed relentlessly, early in the mornings, late in the evenings. His ear is trained to detect even the slightest hiccup, a shot fired too early, too late. Today, it is flawless and he is pleased.
Salutes are held as a bugler steps out and blows a solemn, mournful version of Taps. Then attention returns to the flag.
As the ceremonial band plays America, the Beautiful, the casket team begins folding its flag above Bennett’s remains. First in halves, then in quarters. The flag shrinks and tightens as it makes its way to the end of the line, where Private First Class Robert Wayne Martin waits to inspect it.
There must be no red showing in the triangular form, only nine white stars in a one-three-five sequence against a blue backdrop. Satisfied, he passes the flag to Lower, who accepts it with one white-gloved hand beneath it and one on top.
The casket team marches off. Lower turns to Smith and hands over the first of three flags to be delivered to Bennett’s family. Smith kneels in front of Mandi Bennett.
On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.
–Derek Turner is a freelance writer and a former senior editor of On Patrol.
You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.