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Dover Base to Hold First Public Welcoming for Service Casualties Since '91

The lift of the media ban on homecomings of war casualties offers a personal look at the fallen -- and those who welcome them back to the United States. President Obama visited Dover Air Force Base on Oct. 29 to honor 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan.

Each service branch has its own honor guard that is sent to Dover to welcome service members home. For the Army, which has suffered most of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, members of the Old Guard, based at Fort Myer in Arlington County, are given the task.

Once the plane lands, an officer inspects the flags to make sure they are secure and have no rips or ruffles. Then the service members board the plane and stand around the transfer case. A chaplain says a blessing, using whatever personal information is available about the deceased. Then, on command, the service members carry the case to a truck that transports the remains to the base mortuary.

Old Guard members also are assigned the funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. To make it into the Old Guard, they've already survived a sort of basic training in which, instead of climbing walls and crawling under barbed wire, they learn to stand as still as a marble column and as stolidly as a beefeater.

Their three-week orientation training ends with a particularly grueling task: They have to stand at attention a full 90 minutes. That's the length of a feature film without so much as a sigh or smirk.

It can be difficult, given that the instructors do everything they can to break the soldiers' concentration. They tell dirty jokes. They dance. They play peekaboo behind their berets and make funny faces. They sing ridiculous songs: Barry Manilow in falsetto, "A Whole New World" from Disney's "Aladdin."

Having survived the "Aladdin" test, Pvt. Kyle Brower, 18 years old and just a few months removed from civilian life, was able to stand still and stare into the middle distance during his first dignified transfer last week. He was able to carry the coffin while remaining, as the soldiers call it, "locked up" -- both physically and emotionally. If his thoughts wandered to the soldier inside, how he or she died, he was able to snap back.

Still, "it was nerve-racking," he said. "I tried not to let it get to me, all my nerves. I tried to breathe and just go with it."

Afterward, he was worried that he blinked too often because the wind had dried his eyes. But his commanders gave him good reviews, and he was happy to have at least one dignified transfer under his belt before the media storm.

Members of the Old Guard are infantry soldiers, too, trained to search and destroy as well as to honor. Some have served in war and know what the consequences are -- all of which makes what they do all the more important, they said.

"You kind of have to detach yourself from everything else," Rhett said. "If you don't . . . " he paused for a moment. "It's such an emotionally draining job. That doesn't mean you stop thinking about everything. We just have to step back and provide honor and dignity."

Some days, several bodies come through Dover. Other times, it's quiet. It all depends on the level of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most times, the soldiers won't know the identity of the fallen, or maybe they'll catch a name or some tidbit of information from the blessing the chaplain says over each coffin. But that's it.

"And to be honest, I like to keep it that way," Spec. Jason Roberts said.

After each transfer, Rhett and the other noncommissioned officers critique their soldiers, pointing out whose feet weren't together, whose eyeballs roamed, who slouched. They are the sorts of tiny details that most civilians wouldn't notice, even under the media spotlight.

"We always strive for perfection," Rhett said. "It doesn't matter who's watching us."


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