WASHINGTON – It’s an iconic scene: Six men stand together halfway around the world from home and raise a flag on top of Mount Suribachi. When the men returned home, their story of valor on Iwo Jima lifted a nation to its feet in the midst of the turning point of World War II.
Now, more than 60 years later, another six Marines stand tall in the shadow of the Marine Corps War Memorial’s valor as it depicts that iconic scene.
They belong to the group of 13 Marines who carry the caskets of fellow Marines through the streets of Arlington National Cemetery and surrounding National Capital region cemeteries, (sometimes up to a mile,) as the last salute to the fallen members of the 234-year-old brotherhood.
The Marine Corps’ body bearers have one of the most unique duties in the Corps.
Exclusive to the Corps, these Marines carry caskets weighing as much as 800 pounds at shoulder and head level, only lowering at the exact moment of burial. Their pace is deliberate and slow, prolonging the honor that is due to America’s heroes.
As unique as the job, the Marines themselves stand out. The smallest bearer, at six feet tall and 260 pounds, towers over the average Marine. His biceps closely resemble runners’ thighs, and his neck blends evenly with his jaw line. Body bearers remain among the largest Marines in the Corps.
It’s a feat that starts early in the Marines’ training. Beyond the 13 weeks of recruit training, body bearers begin their journey at the school of infantry like any other aspiring infantryman.
Potential bearers are scouted during SOI and once briefed can volunteer to join the “World Famous Body Bearers.”
“The selection process is based largely on a strength test,” explained Cpl. John A. Smurr, a senior body bearer. “Height and weight come into play, but if [potential bearers] don’t have an overall big frame to support the strength needed, they just can’t do the job.”
A training time table is indefinite for those selected. At the Marine Corps’ Ceremonial Drill School, a Marine can graduate in a few months or train for a year to achieve the strength and perfection required to bear a casket.
Smurr suggested each Marine arrive at the school able to bench press a minimum of 225 pounds, military press 135, curl 115, and squat at least 315.
Due to their frame and size, the body bearers have acquired a “meat-head” label, but Lance Cpl. Stephen Brewer, a junior bearer, discredited this idea by explaining, “We’re not meat heads in the gym.
Even more important than your strength [or size], your endurance and stamina need to be top class to carry a casket.”
Body bearers execute hundreds of funerals each year, which requires constant muscle conditioning, and Brewer said stamina, not size, makes a good body bearer.
Still, iron weights are not enough to maintain this critical mission.
“The character qualities of this section are bearing, discipline and respect,” said Brewer. “That is everything the body bearers strive to emulate or to display at all times. That’s what we bring to Arlington every day, and that’s what we live in our lives.”
These qualities don’t exist without continual training.
“There’s a lot of mentoring that goes on between the senior and junior body bearers,” explained Cpl. Campoamor Ayala, a senior body bearer. “If there’s something the juniors don’t know, the senior will teach them as they progress to make sure they carry on the traditions and precision of drill.”
From a statuesque salute as the funeral precession approaches to the stern faces worn at all times, bearing becomes the Corps’ final message of honor and respect to the fallen.
Bearers said every funeral takes a toll with their emotions, though their face retains the thousand yard stare at all times.
“Not only does this test you physically, but mentally and emotionally as well,” Smurr said. “It is pretty emotionally stressful when you’re out at Arlington every day and you see a family who just lost their loved one.”
Smurr said the body bearers can be that connection for the families back to their fallen Marine. Though that connection wares on their minds during their time as a body bearer, it’s a job they don’t resent, but embrace.
“You can fast forward your life in your mind and see yourself someday being in that position and having six Marines render honor to you and your family in the same way,” he said. “Every Marine we lay down is us, our brother, our sister, our mom and dad, and our friend.”
The consensus of the body bearers is that the physical pain they feel when lifting a casket for extended periods is incomparable to what a family feels.
Body bearers said they feel as though they represent the whole Marine Corps.
“If it was up to me, I’d say ‘let’s have the whole Corps carry the caskets,’ because each time we lose a Marine that’s really who feels it. The whole Corps,” Brewer said.
They agree that pain is a small price to pay to uphold the honor of being “the last to let you down.”