Full Military Honors Honor a Soldier's Full Sacrifice

By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

Joseph M. Hernandez, 24, was a family man with a wife and two young sons. But he was also an Army man and a soldier. Yesterday, he became the first enlisted soldier to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery under a new policy that allows those killed in action full military honors.

"He said it was something he felt he had to do," his wife, Alison Hernandez, 22, told the Chicago Tribune last week about his military service. "He never had anything bad to say about the military. He just decided to join. He felt it was his duty."

Spc. Hernandez, of Hammond, Ind., died Jan. 9 in the Zabul province of Afghanistan after a makeshift explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Jaldak.

Hernandez was the 82nd casualty from Afghanistan to be buried there. The new Army policy took effect Jan. 1. Previously, full honors were reserved for officers and enlisted personnel who reached the highest enlisted rank of E-9, according to cemetery officials.

In the past, limited resources, among other things, have hindered having more full honors services. A standard honors service includes a firing party, bugler and chaplain; full honors also includes a band, colors team, escort platoon and horse-drawn caisson.

"Arlington National Cemetery is an expression of our nation's reverence for those who served her in uniform, many making the ultimate sacrifice," Secretary of the Army Pete Geren said about the policy change in a release last month. "Arlington and those honored there are part of our national heritage. This new policy provides a common standard for honoring all soldiers killed in action."

Hernandez's ceremony didn't include all the elements because of scheduling and weather issues. Both of the cemetery's caissons were already scheduled for use yesterday, and Hernandez's widow opted to have the service sooner rather than wait for a later date when a caisson would be available, said Kaitlin Horst, cemetery spokeswoman.

And instead of a full military band, there was only a drummer because the band doesn't perform when the weather is below freezing due to the impact of cold on instruments, Horst said. "Anything in addition to standard honors is considered a full honors service," she added.

More than 100 mourners turned out yesterday to return Hernandez to the place where he had served as a member of the Old Guard. An escort removed his silver casket from a silver hearse and carried it to the grave site.

Flags were presented to Alison Hernandez, their two young sons and her husband's parents, Elva and Jessie Hernandez. As the flags were given out, 9-month-old Noah Hernandez wailed loudly from where he was being held in the front row. His older brother, Jacob, stood in front of the seats and accepted a flag that seemed almost as big as his 2-year-old body.

Killed along with Hernandez were Maj. Brian M. Mescall, 33, of Hopkinton, Mass., and Sgt. Jason R. Parsons, 24, of Lenoir, N.C. They were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 4th Infant Regiment, based at Hohenfels, Germany. Mescall will be buried at Arlington on Monday.

Alison Hernandez told the Post-Tribune newspaper of Northern Indiana that her husband called her every two days while he was in Afghanistan. On Jan. 9, she waited for the call and felt something wasn't right.

"My stomach hurt," she told the Post-Tribune. "I wasn't feeling well. I broke down and cried to my dad and said, 'I need my husband.' "

Alison and their sons lived in military housing with Hernandez in Hohenfels. She and the boys came back to the United States for the holidays, and Hernandez was going to join them in March. Instead, on the night of Jan. 9, Army representatives informed her of her husband's death.

"It was a nightmare come true," Robert Gordon Jr., Alison Hernandez's father, told the Chicago Tribune. "I heard her scream from the porch. I got up, and she fell through the door. 'He's gone.' ''

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