By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009
The wind can whip cold across the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, freezing fingers that hold the flag-draped metal transfer case in which lie the remains of a fellow service member. You do not loosen your grip. You do not shuffle your feet. You do not grimace.
If you have to yawn, you do it through your nose. You swallow your coughs and sneezes, let itches go unscratched. Keep your mouth closed, eyes straight and the blinking to an absolute minimum.
Those are the rules.
Those are the rules when it's 4 a.m. and it's dark and there's no one around.
Those were the rules last night when the ritual of welcoming home the fallen was open to the public for the first time since President George H.W. Bush instituted a ban on news coverage in 1991.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers, 30, of Hopewell, Va., who was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday in the explosion of a makeshift bomb, became the first service member welcomed home publicly in 18 years. Myers, who was attached to the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron based in England, was awarded a Bronze Star last year for his service in Iraq, according to the Air Force.
Myers's wife and other relatives attended the 17-minute ceremony, which began shortly after 11 last night at the Air Force base. Except for the command "Present Arms," it was conducted in silence.
"It doesn't matter what the conditions are like -- cold, wet, sunny," said Sgt. James Rhett of the Army's Old Guard. "They're a fallen soldier, and they deserve the highest respect and honor we can give."
For years, the ritual of welcoming the war dead back to U.S. soil at Dover has been performed in private by the various services. Last night's was conducted by an Air Force team based at Dover. And now that the Obama administration has lifted the ban, the event was broadcast across the globe. Under the new policy, families of the deceased decide whether the arrival will be open to the public.
With the long-awaited green light yesterday, the soldiers from the Army's Old Guard who perform what's known as the "dignified transfer" could suddenly find themselves on center stage. In an interview last week, several Old Guard soldiers, said they were ready.
And whether the media is there doesn't matter, they said: What matters is that they honor the fallen by preserving the solemnity of the occasion with their quiet precision.
The worldwide attention "won't change anything we do," said Spec. Johnny Bowers, 26.
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."