July 25, 2011
Name: C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: A Soldier's Perspective
Back in September 2008, we , interviewed author Jim Sheeler about his book Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives on the You Served Radio Show. Sheeler wrote the book about Army Major Steve Beck, who served as a casualty assistance officer (CAO). It's a job I don't think I ever want, but many Soldiers actually sign up for the honor to support the families of fallen heroes. It's a very emotional and time-consuming job and I can't think of a job any more honorable.
This week, I was able to at least take a peek behind what these CAOs do as I had the privilege to escort SGT Charles L. Simmons to his final resting place. I worked closely with the CAO to ensure that everything was done according to the family's wishes. But this blog post isn't about me or SGT Simmons. It's about all the people that do so much for our troops behind the scenes to make sure that their final salutes are coordinated and that they receive the honors they truly deserve for their service.
I'll start with the Casualty Assistance Office since they were the first place I went after volunteering to serve as SGT Simmons' escort. I can't express how proud I am of the people whose responsibility it is to ensure that every aspect of caring for our fallen and their families is managed in a respectful, honorable way. Once they receive notification of a death, a tasking is sent out to a unit to assign a CAO. Units are tasked on a rotating basis.
I was immediately impressed at the level of knowledge that every person I spoke to had about the entitlements, procedures, funerals, and literally every aspect of seeing to the affairs of a deceased Soldier or family member. The case manager sat me down and briefed me on my responsibilities as the escort. I was instructed about all the aspects of serving as escort to the body: travel, movement of the casket or urn, placement of the flag, uniform setup, etc. And since my memory sucks, they provided me with a nifty booklet to read with all the information on which she had just briefed me, including all the necessary regulations.
A lot of preparation goes into getting a fallen Soldier ready for military ceremony. Besides the normal funeral home stuff, the Army purchases a brand new uniform in which the Soldier will be buried. It is adorned with brand new ribbons, medals, rank, etc. Once the body is dressed and ready for shipment, I come in. It is my job to double and triple check the Soldier and his uniform. I'm also supposed to ensure that the Soldier himself is presentable and dignified.
Once everything has been checked, we very carefully seal and load the casket into the hearse. At this point, a brand new, perfectly ironed flag is placed on the casket for the first time and won't be removed until it is folded and presented to the next of kin. Everyone from the funeral director to the driver is so extremely loving, and devoted to ensuring that everything is perfect with these troops. Unfortunately, they have a lot of practice near bases like Ft. Hood, from which Soldiers are constantly deployed. The escort rides in the hearse to the funeral home where the viewing or other ceremony will take place. I was really impressed with the care taken by the drivers and staff at each location. They don't drive too fast and every movement is deliberate and smooth.
At the funeral home, everyone takes extra special care during movement of the casket so that all the final details are correct. I perform another inspection of the body and casket to ensure that nothing happened during transportation. As with anything military, there is paperwork that is completed at this stage.
By this time, the Soldier's unit has usually conducted a formal memorial for the Soldier's battle buddies and other unit members. I was also impressed by the level of detail and care that goes into every memorial. Unfortunately, in less than a month, our rear detachment is already a pro at these -- having had to hold two of them already. The command team and staff see to every detail, from placement of the firing team to music to speeches and ceremonial orders. Everyone was very involved in ensuring that the memorial was as perfect as possible. The behind the scenes planning was draining, meticulous, and engaging. Everyone did their part, and when someone hit a roadblock, someone else stepped up to try and fix the problem.
The Army really does care about its fallen. Sometimes, the bureaucratic red tape may slow some things down or miss others completely, but the individual Soldiers -- from the troops to the commands -- really do everything possible to ensure that the family is taken care of and that these leaders are available to them any time. The rifle team was extremely professional and understood the sacred nature of their duty. The ushers gently led grieving friends and family to their seats and positions. I was honestly impressed and humbled by their actions.
It is the escort's job to be present with the fallen any time someone will have access to them. That includes any movement, viewing, or modifications to the casket, uniform or body itself. This week entailed a number of ceremonies, including a viewing, Catholic rosary reading, funeral, and interment. It was an honor to be with SGT Simmons and ensure that he was never alone. Even though temperatures rose above 100 degrees and details were authorized to downgrade to Class B uniform, we didn't feel right doing so and remained in Class A's. We thought that it was more respectful to our brother in arms, and our temporary discomfort was worth showing him proper honors. And let me tell you –- it was hot. I think I sweated all the way through my coat!
The employees at the Central Texas Veterans Cemetery seemed to fully understand the weight of their responsibilities also. As we drove past a group of grounds keepers they ceased what they were doing, removed their headgear, and placed their hands over their hearts until we were well past them. They were busy preparing the ground in which SGT Simmons would be placed. The funeral home personnel also brought a couple coolers full of iced bottles of water for those gathered to pay respects to SGT Simmons.
I think the hardest part of the entire week watching the family struggle to deal with their loss. As the escort, I'm really supposed to keep my contact with the family at a minimum. So many times, I just wanted to go up and embrace his wife and kids and try to reassure them, but it wasn't my place. His daughter was only about 10 years old, similar to my youngest daughter. She seemed to take it the hardest and there was nothing I could do to ease her pain and suffering, though at one point I did get an opportunity to explain the meaning of the challenge coins that had been left for him by members of the command at the unit memorial. Because our Deputy Commanding General is Canadian, he has a unique coin that I explained to her. SGT Simmons' son is about 14 or 15. I could sense the weight he must feel upon his shoulders as he struggled to maintain his composure and prevent others from seeing him cry. Again, I wanted to reassure him it was okay to cry, but knew my place. It just broke my heart and I couldn't help but think of my kids were something to happen to me. Other than that brief explanation, my contact was minimal.
If you really want to know more about what goes into taking care of the families of our fallen, I strongly urge you to get a copy of Final Salute. It was my honor to render one more salute to a fallen comrade and end a week totally devoted to SGT Simmons' final hours in our presence. It's an honor to be a member of an organization that works so hard and so tirelessly for its fallen.