You hear a lot about institutional abuse of underlings when people talk about "the Army," "the company," or more recently "them," but the fact is, when you get right down to it, One Person generally gives you that pain you know so well.

In my case, it was Sergeant Major Louie Becerra, who was apparently uncomfortable with the fact that a: I had not volunteered to be his personal whipping boy and b: I really didn't have all that much respect for the organization to which he had attached himself for life. Any Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army is, by definition a "lifer." It takes a lot of years and a lot of duty tours to climb to the top of the non-commissioned officers' totem pole. The men who make it are either very good at their job or pricks.

Becerra was a prick and a half. I didn't know him well enough to know why, nor was I mature enough to even try to look at life from his point of view. All I knew back then was that he hated me and my team.

The entertainment section at Fort Huachuca was a bunch of actors, directors, and technicians who had somehow found themselves in the Army, on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, in southeastern Arizona during the Vietnam War. None of us was happy to be there, but things could definitely have been worse. We could have been 11Bravo10's--combat riflemen--playing the jazz of a very special hotel in Southeast Asia. Hell, we could have been lifers.

Our jobs required us to work nights, so we didn't stand formation--or mandatory PT (Physical Training)--at 6:30 every morning; we slept in. Our jobs required us to keep our hair long; you can imagine how that went down in the 60's. Best of all--we didn't even wear uniforms. Entertainment was F-Troop on the hoof and, every chance they got, the lifers tried to bust our groove.

Post Detail was one of their favorite tortures--spend all day Saturday driving around the fort picking up cigarette butts, painting perfectly good rocks white, generally beautifying our home away from home. Entertainment pulled more Post Details than anybody else in the place. We also got more traffic tickets, pulled more K.P. (kitchen police, up at 4 A.M. to do dishes), and endured countless unannounced "shakedown" inspections, as if we had something to hide in our lockers besides our pride.

But Becerra got me bad. Big Time. He assigned me--his personal whipping boy--to Funeral Detail, which is everything the words imply and more.

There were six pallbearers. There were half-a-dozen riflemen, a bugler, and an officer to present the flag at the end. Every weekend for six months the Fort Huachuca Funeral Detail flew all over the American Southwest to bury, on the average, at least three young men and the occasional geezer. The Army tries to be efficient. It will cluster funerals geographically if it can.

It was a bummer.

Not only did we spit shine our boots to within an inch of their lives, we wore immaculate dress uniforms with special accessories and white gloves. We rehearsed the goddamned ceremony on a daily basis. Our lives, for all practical purposes, were given over in service to death. Taps was our theme song.

We became a team. That's what you do in the Army. You get through whatever it is by doing whatever you need to do. We became the best God-damned Funeral Detail you've ever seen. Precise. Military. Respectful. A comfort to the bereaved, who wanted to believe that their son, their husband, their brother had died for a reason.

And it was all a fucking lie.

Mornings we were hung-over. Around noontime you could definitely catch a whiff of something sweetly "recreational" in the air. If the funeral were late in the day, some of the guys--in some sort of macho-insane push of the envelope--were known to drop acid. I can only imagine what that was like. It's not something I'd like to spend a lot of time thinking about.

The facts were bad enough: The youth lying there, wasted, in the chapel. The horrible cosmetic details applied to a boy who has died a violent death. The young and pregnant wives; the sad old lonely widows. The sheer frustration of the Navajo who pulled a pistol and fired three shots in some shithole reservation in the desert. The sad inevitability of class revealed: These were the sons of poor people we were sending on their way. Lots of black faces. Lots of brown faces. Poor people fought the war in Vietnam. Not a single American congressman lost his son in combat. What are the odds?

It was a beautiful thing to watch, to tell you the truth. The way we moved together. The lock-step transport of the casket over the rockiest ground on the hottest of days. The perfect folding of the flag--the last memory of her son a mother will know--presented, a triangle of stars, like a diaper, or a handkerchief in a tuxedo pocket before a prom. The private whispered thanks, small solace really. Tears of fear and loss. Tears of pride. Tears for all the things that will never be. The commands of the Captain. The crash of rifle bolts in the midst of birdsong; the precision of the shots, fired not in anger but out of respect. And most of all the bugle. Playing the saddest sound I've ever heard. Over and over and over again. Eternally.

I don't think I was ever the same after those six months. I developed enormous respect for clergymen, who deal with these matters all their lives and are, indeed, a great comfort to the family. I learned a lot about people, how they behave under stress; how they manage to move on in the face of realities totally outside of their control.

But one funeral lives foremost in my mind, this fine spring day, above the countless others. The church was upscale; the family well-to-do. The son/brother/grandson had been a West Point Lieutenant. The Army had been the focal point of his life; he was, to return to the expression, a lifer.

For whatever reason, we pallbearers had not repaired to the parking lot while the family spent their last minutes with the body. We stood nervously in a hallway at the back of the church and we could look into the sanctuary through a wall of glass. The voices were muffled, which made it all the more maddeningly surreal.

The soldier's twelve or thirteen year-old sister had become hysterical in the pew when her parents insisted she go up to the coffin to say goodbye.

"No! No!" she sobbed, over and over. "I don't want to! I can't. No!"

The parents, rather firmly I thought, dragged her to her brother's body. She fell across him, sobbing hysterically, refusing to let go, knowing, finally--in her deepest little girl place--that this was the last time she would ever see him.

And now she didn't want to leave him. She became even more hysterical. So the parents had to pull her, again, tortured, inconsolable, down the aisle to us, standing awkwardly, six guys with a soldier's job to do. We were in tears.

And that was the day I decided that no son of mine would ever take part in a Funeral Detail. Unless he decides to become a Lifer. In which case, one way or the other, it's inevitable.


On Vietnam:

REMFS

  1. I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
  2. A long time gone
  3. How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
  4. Libber and I go to war
  5. Fate takes a piss
  6. Thanks For the Memory
  7. Back in the Shit
  8. LZ Waterloo
  9. Saturday Night, Numbah Ten

grunts
Phantom

a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Draft
Feat of Clay
Funeral Detail
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate

AK-47
Breaking Starch
Combat Infantryman Badge
David Dellinger
Dickey Chapelle
Firebase Mary Ann
Garry Owen
Gloria Emerson
Graves Registration
I Corps
MOS
Project 100,000
REMF
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?

A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers

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