The Marines moved slowly, deliberately, in unison, with short, rolling heel-to-toe steps, gliding along the floor, their hands placed where they would be holding a casket, though on this day that weight was simulated.
Wednesday’s rain had forced practice inside.
Members of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island’s funeral detail improvised accordingly.
In the depot’s column-lined Lyceum, the funeral detail took chairs from banquet tables and used them to create a grave. A Marine pursed his lips in concentration as he and his comrades glided toward it. Members of the firing detail stood nearby, holding their rifles.
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The firing detail is a rotating assignment. Personnel from Parris Island and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort perform the duty, according to depot spokesman Capt. Greg Carroll. For the month of May, Marines from Parris Island’s Service Company, Headquarters and Service Battalion, have the honor.
At Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony in Beaufort National Cemetery, seven members of that detail will fire three volleys from their M16-A4s under the command of Sgt. Garrett Adams.
Adams – a dark-haired, 25-year-old Orangeburg native – is as long and lean as the sword he wielded at Wednesday’s practice.
Monday will be his second time at the national cemetery.
His first was the burial of a Marine corporal in his early 30s.
“It was a very emotional funeral to be a part of,” Adams said. “It’s hard. You just have to be strong for (the family).”
When he directs the firing detail, one of the last things he does is pick up three spent shell casings and hand them to a fellow Marine, who places them inside a folded American flag.
“God, country, Corps,” he said of the gesture.
The symbolism of threes at military funerals can be traced to the Roman Empire, according to a Department of Defense report. Dirt was cast on a coffin three times during a Roman burial, the report said, and the deceased’s name was called three times, which ended the funeral. In more recent times, burial parties tending to the dead on the battlefield fired three musket volleys signifying their work was done – and that they were again ready to fight.
On Wednesday, Adams’ movements with the sword, like the steps of his fellow Marines of the burial detail, were slow and smooth.
“We’re not rushing the ceremony,” he said.
As he called out commands, he counted the pace for and voiced the description of each movement. It’s a technique called “ditties,” what Parris Island recruits use to learn drill procedures, and what the firing detail uses to synchronize its movements in practice.
At a funeral or formal ceremony, though, there are no ditties – everything is done with a silent count.
“Intimidating? No,” firing-detail member Cpl. Myriah Caton said of public performances.
“Because I have a lot of confidence in myself,” she continued, “and I’m pretty good with my ditties.”
She smiled, white teeth against tan, freckled skin and green eyes, all of which managed to match her fatigues without being camouflaged by them.
Caton, a 24-year-old veteran of the detail from Jacksonville, N.C., has been to more than 100 funerals. They’ve been a mix, she said: Marines who’ve died of old age, others killed in their youth.
She was once on the detail at a general’s burial, which was, in a way, “cool,” because there was a flyover, photographers and a mass of people paying their respects. A fitting sendoff.
And she was on a more recent detail when, from more than 30 yards away, she heard the moans of the next of kin of the young Marine being interred. A woman – his mother, Caton guessed – was grieving loudly in Spanish. Caton was touched – the firing detail is farthest away from the family at funerals, she said, somewhat insulated by the distance.
“I definitely think about (my) bearing,” Caton said, when asked how she controlled her emotions during funerals. “You want to lay them to rest with a good show.”
Caton and her comrades practice twice a week, more if needed. And they always go through a final drill in full uniform just before they board the bus to the funeral site.
“For a funeral, you want to see every (firing detail) movement in slow motion,” she said. “We don’t want to be too crisp. … The way I think of it, it’s slow like a funeral is sad. It’s quiet. You’re in mourning.”
When they fire their rifles, they do so as one.
They see mourners jump at the sound.
The blasts – their volume, their suddenness – manage to surprise, even though everyone knows they’re coming.
So powerful is the sight of aimed rifles and the command to “fire” that a civilian attending Wednesday’s practice found himself squinting involuntarily as the Marines squeezed their triggers, and a muted click struggled to echo inside the Lyceum.
The rifles themselves come from Parris Island’s armory. They are part of the arsenal recruits train with. They are the same weapons with which Marines such as Caton and Adams fulfill their regular marksmanship qualification requirements.
A rifle fired on the range one week might be loaded with blanks and handled with white gloves at a funeral the next.
Adams, a small-arms repair technician, works with the armory. Caton, a finance disburser, “deals with anything when it comes to military pay.” Other detail members have different military occupations.
When serving on funeral detail, many Marines meet colleagues they wouldn’t otherwise have.
After practice, Adams stood in the Lyceum as his comrades filed out.
The rain had stopped.
He gestured to a silver bracelet on his right hand, one he wears in memory of Cpl. Christopher Monahan, 25, who was killed Nov. 26, 2012, in Afghanistan.
The men served together.
Adams called Monahan a mentor.
One he remembers every time he commands the firing detail at a funeral.
One he thinks of every time he prepares for one.
“Doing the movements with purpose,” he’d said earlier in the day, when asked what he looked for when leading the detail.
“Even though it is just practice.”