FORT HOOD, Texas – From Stetsons and sabers to horses and spurs, the 1st Cavalry Division is instilled with a rich history and chock-full of tradition. And honoring the fallen is no exception.
It was with this tradition in mind that nine Troopers from Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav. Div., took on the three-month mission of executing funeral honors for Fort Hood.
The mission to find the right soldiers began at the top.
First Sgt. Chris Ausbun, HHT first sergeant, chose staff sergeants Harry Wise and Luke Himmelreich, both with HHT, to find the right soldiers for the honor.
“They don’t look at it like a detail, they look at it as an honor … they take pride in it.” Ausbun said.
Once Wise and Himmelreich had selected their team members, the small team began training one week prior to taking full responsibility of the mission. They trained everyday to ensure near perfection.
“It’s everyday, all day, us going through it … until everyone has it down and perfect,” Himmelreich said.
Throughout the training, the team learned several tasks in order to maintain the tradition of the honor.
And every task in the detail carries with it a special meaning, For instance, the United States flag, is to cover the closed casket with the union blue field over the left shoulder of the deceased, signifying the flag’s embrace of the deceased who in life defended the flag.
Once the funeral service concludes, six to eight soldiers of the funeral detail team, wearing their dress blue uniforms, walk in a straight line and in-step toward the casket. They then split into two lines of threes or fours and surround the casket, preparing to carry it to the hearse. Choosing to use six or eight soldiers depends on the size of the deceased veteran.
Even though emotions can run high during the funeral, the team members maintain their military bearing and professionalism.
“During the ceremony, you’re so concentrated on making sure everything is done to standard, and that’s the majority of your thoughts,” Himmelreich said. “I tell the guys to try and keep the emotions suppressed and be as professional as possible.”
When the casket passes by, soldiers in attendance stand at attention and render a hand salute, as the expressionless team slowly carries the deceased to the hearse.
A procession of headlights and silence carries all in attendance to the cemetery for the veteran’s final honors.
At the cemetery, sounds of sorrow gently pour out of the crowd. Words of sympathy fill the air as the deceased’s family members take their seats in the front row.
The funeral team members remain focused as they remove the casket from the hearse and carry it ceremoniously to where the deceased veteran is front and center for all to see. Upon proper placement of the casket the team exits and leaves the casket in full view.
Tears stained the cheeks of those in attendance grieving while they watched the detail march stoically out of sight. “I think a lot of us go into basic training mode,” said Spc. Matthew Russo, native of Winchester, Va., and Trooper with HHT. “Where the drill sergeant is yelling at you, and you just kind of stare through stuff.”
A few more words are spoken about the deceased and a loud command is heard from behind the crowd.
“Port Arms,” Wise yells, and seven of the funeral team members then bring their M4 rifles from their butt-stock resting position on the ground to directly in front of them.
Silence then engulfs the cemetery, and he commands, “Ready.” The soldiers then pull the charging handle on their rifle to chamber a round. The command “Aim” is then shouted, and the rifles are brought to their shoulders. “Fire,” and seven rifles fire. Then the series of commands repeat two more times for a total of 21 shots fired, thus rendering three volleys.
The three volleys are an old battlefield custom. Warring units would cease fire to remove their dead from the battleground. When they were finished, three volleys were fired telling the other side they were ready to resume the battle.
Often the three volleys are confused with a 21-gun salute, which is fired with a large-caliber weapon or “gun,” such as a canon.
Next, the command of “Present Arms,” is given and a lone bugler begins playing Taps as a cold wind whips across the Texas cemetery.
The Army officially recognized taps in 1874 where it signified lights out. The tune still signifies time to rest, but at a funeral it represents eternal rest.
Sobbing erupts from the crowd and servicemembers salute the deceased.
As taps echoes across the flat cemetery and the funeral team members maintain their weapon’s salute, each member is dealing with the emotions of the funeral in his own way.
“You think about doing a good job, because the family deserves it,” Russo said.
Subsequently, the honor team members place their weapons back to a resting position and then marched in line back to the casket.
Seven members of the team surround the casket, three on each side and the officer-in-charge stands at the head of the deceased. The U.S. flag draping the casket is then lifted by six soldiers and pulled taut before folding in half – long side to long side. The flag is folded once more, with the union blue field on the outside, and pulled flat.
Beginning with the stripes, the flag is folded carefully into the symbolic tri-corner shape. It is folded 13 times on the triangles, representing the 13 original colonies. The tri-corner shape comes from the look of the hat worn by the Patriots of the American Revolution. And before the final edge is tucked in, three shells are placed within the flag to represent the three volleys and when completely folded, no red or white stripes should show.
The flag is passed to the officer where he inspects the it, deems it perfect, then he turns to the flag recipient.
Holding the flag with both hands and the straight edge facing the recipient, he leans toward the spouse of the deceased and hands her the folded flag then recites a passage.
“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.”
The soldier stands and renders a slow customary hand salute to the significant other then marches away.
Throughout all of these tasks and for every funeral they are called to do, the soldiers must maintain their professionalism and military bearing by holding back their emotions.
“I take it personally,” said Spc. Aaron Humpert, Castervalley, Calif., native, and HHT soldier, as he explained the pride he takes in this detail.
The sense of honor and pride runs deep within the funeral detail, considering how important their duty is to the families and the Army.
“I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life,” Russo said. “It’s a big responsibility and something to be very proud of.”