The pallbearers held the coffin at a perilous tilt. Their fitful marching was nowhere near "left-right-left" synchronicity. Even the flag draped over the coffin was rumpled at the corners.
"Hold it. Hold it!" Army Chief Warrant Officer Paul Dziegielewski said, shaking his head.
"Once you get the coffin up, keep it straight and level," he said, slashing a line through the air with his hand. The flag has to be draped smoothly, he chided, unfurling it at the sides.
"You have to remember, everyone is going to be watching you. . . . Let's try again."
In less than 48 hours, the volunteers from the Army Reserve's 99th Regional Readiness Command would be participating in a funeral, and it was immediately clear to Dziegielewski that the group of soldiers needed all the practice it could get.
The 99th, based in this town just west of Pittsburgh, doesn't have a full burial team. Until the Iraq war, it didn't need one. Now, it can be called on to perform at the funerals of soldiers from reserve units in Maryland, Virginia, the District, Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
That means that Dziegielewski, the command's casualty officer, relies on volunteers he fondly calls "pencil pushers" -- the administrative assistants and supply clerks whose usual job is to get other soldiers ready to deploy.
For all that the novices learn in his crash courses, often given just a day or two before a funeral, Dziegielewski acknowledged that "we are not the Old Guard," the soldiers who make funerals at Arlington National Cemetery legendary.
Only about 150 of those killed in Iraq and about 20 killed in Afghanistan have been buried at Arlington. Many more are buried across the country in cemeteries closer to home. And with the deaths of World War II veterans, the demand for burial teams is such that some have resorted to using a bugle outfitted with a device that plays a recorded version of taps.
For this funeral, Dziegielewski had a real bugler borrowed from the Pennsylvania National Guard. It was everyone else he was worried about.
He was asking a lot of this hastily assembled band of ordinary soldiers. They not only would be representing the Army and the country, but also playing a part in a centuries-long tradition of nations honoring their war dead.
They had to be perfect.
"It's rough when you start out," Dziegielewski told the group before training began. "There's a lot of pressure. You cannot make one mistake."
The Firing Party
As Dziegielewski struggled to get the pallbearers in sync, Sgt. 1st Class Don Hammons was having just as hard a time with the firing party. At "Ready," their feet swiveled at wildly different paces. "Aim" brought their rifle barrels out in a disjointed wave. "Fire" triggered a salute so scattered it sounded like popcorn popping.
"It's going to take some repetition," Hammons said. "We have to do this as one, in sync."
All afternoon, he walked them through the movements. When they couldn't get it right on their own, he set their arms and legs in place with his own hands, as if molding pieces of clay. Count out the steps in your mind, 1-2-3-4-5, he urged. And: "Use your peripheral vision to key off the people next to you so you can keep tempo with them."
Hammons knows the consequences of war -- and the importance of honoring its fatalities. He served with the elite 101st Airborne during the Persian Gulf War. A father of five boys, he is headed to Iraq this fall, another reason he wanted his soldiers to get the steps right.
"I would want my family to get the same treatment," he said.
After a few wobbly practice runs, he grew impatient. "Stop," he said. "Watch." He tackled the routine with the controlled beauty of a dancer, tight and sharp: swivel right, back step, barrel up, aim, fire, cock the rifle, begin again.
"Like that," he said after he finished. "Like that, but faster."
Yet no matter how often the group went through its moves, Sgt. Sarah Williamson was almost always a half-step behind -- late in swiveling, late in bringing up her rifle, late in getting off the shot. Sometimes she never got it off at all.
Slight and soft-spoken, she joined the Army 21/2 years ago not just for the benefits that would make being a single mother of a 5-year-old boy easier, but because "I wanted to do something with my life."
By the second day of training, the pallbearers were so good that Dziegielewski let them quit at lunch. The firing party was coming along, too.
Williamson, though, was still lagging late into the day, and time was running out. Then she committed one of the worst mistakes for a soldier: Her rifle went off accidentally. Everyone around her jumped at the loud, unexpected BANG. It was just a blank, but Hammons scowled.
"That's how people get killed," he groused as they continued practicing into the hot afternoon.
No More Rehearsal
On the day of the funeral in Erie, Pa., the pallbearers stood expressionless in a row against a wall of the funeral home. The training had been so focused on getting it all right that Staff Sgt. Victor M. Cortes III, the man they had come to bury, had seemed an abstraction.
Suddenly, here were his family and friends, real and crying. The soldiers wondered who was who as they shuffled in and out of the viewing. Was the sobbing woman his mother? The two damp-eyed men his brothers? Could the woman who had slipped out to the hallway to change a baby's diaper be the girlfriend?
They knew only what little Dziegielewski had told them about Cortes as they trained. He was 29, an Army mechanic from Erie. He died of "noncombat-related injuries" in Baghdad, a gunshot wound to the head, and the incident was under investigation. It didn't matter how he died, Dziegielewski added quickly as he saw the soldiers' baffled glances. Cortes had been a soldier serving his country, and they were going to honor him.
Finally, after everyone left, the pallbearers entered the viewing room. Before carrying the coffin out, they huddled around the snapshots next to it. Here was Cortes as a baby, as an adolescent mugging for the camera with his brothers, then grown and in uniform, stern and stolid. Here he was as a father holding the infant they had seen in the hallway.
"That was his baby," one of the soldiers gasped.
The family was at the cemetery when the pallbearers arrived, marching the coffin toward the fresh grave. They looked majestic in their uniforms, clicking in step, the flag draped softly at the sides. They folded it into neat origami creases and marched off just as they had practiced.
Then it was the firing party's turn.
"Detail, present arms!" came the command. At "Ready!" the soldiers began their five-step dance, fluidly and together. Williamson swiftly pointed her rifle out at "Aim!" Then at "Fire!" -- BANG -- she got the first shot off clean. BANG, came the second, still in cadence as the shots echoed across the cemetery, over tombstones and hedgerows in the late-morning humidity. BANG, came Williamson's third, right on time.
The soldiers saluted during taps. Then the family was whisked away in a caravan of limousines. As the team relaxed for the first time all day, emotion seeped onto their faces. Master Sgt. Rhonda Beck's blue eyes were red and damp, and she complained that these funerals always leave her with a throat made sore by choking down tears.
Williamson, though, couldn't help but smile. After all the worry, she had nailed it. "It just came to me," she said. "I didn't even have to think about it."
Dziegielewski was relieved but less enthusiastic. Their performance was dignified, workmanlike, perhaps as good as they could get with two days of training. But it was not perfect. There was a bit of a delay in the firing party's second volley, he said, causing a slight crackle instead of a unified pop.
Still, he was satisfied and congratulated the soldiers for doing their duty. Best of all, he said, the family seemed satisfied and had invited them to lunch at a club.
The place was packed by the time the soldiers arrived. They huddled awkwardly off to the side, not sure about where to sit. After a brief moment, family members noticed them and guided them in with welcoming waves toward the buffet. Sit, they said. Eat, drink, stay a while.
Cortes's uncle, a middle-aged man with silver hair and a dark suit, got up from the bar, made his way through the small crowd that had coalesced around the soldiers and shook Williamson's hand. Then he went up to every one of the soldiers, patting them on their backs and looking at them with a sad, tight face.
"Thank you," he said again and again. "Thank you."