Naval personnel take on difficult burial detail
Posted: Friday, July 23, 2010 8:01 pm
By JODY CALLAHAN
The Commercial Appeal
MILLINGTON (AP) — The sailor pointed the bugle at the sky, and taps filled the steamy afternoon.
A few yards away, at a grave site at Memorial Park Cemetery, two more sailors stood on either end of the casket, backs stiff and salutes crisp.
When the bugle sounds died away, those two sailors took the flag from the casket, delicately folded it and presented it to Nan Niell, daughter of retired Chief Petty Officer William Bailey.
“I saw pictures of him in the Navy when I was growing up. To see that (honor) at the close of his life was very special to me,” said Niell, whose dad served during World War II. “I was very moved by it.”
Such rituals take place as many as 500 times a year in churches and cemeteries across the Mid-South, thanks to the burial detail out of Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington.
The detail, which can have as few as three sailors and as many as 17, serve as official representatives at funerals for active duty or retired naval personnel.
“Our job is to represent their service and dedication,” said 31-year-old Derrick Baker, a reservist who spent 12 years in the Navy and has been part of more than 300 such details.
If a person was a chief petty officer or higher, or a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor winner, a full burial detail can be requested.
That includes seven riflemen, each of whom fires three shots, as well as a chaplain, pallbearers and the bugle and flag detail.
Otherwise, anyone who was honorably discharged can request a standard detail, such as last week’s at Memorial Park. The service, including the flag, is free.
“I thought it was very honorable that they would have that at the ceremony we had,” Niell said.
But while the details offer comfort to the families, the job, at least at first, can be very difficult on those involved.
“It’s hard to stand next to a person, and they’re crying, and not put your arm around them and console them,” Baker said.
Usually, newcomers to the job are given bugle detail, since the bugler is always several yards from the mourners.
“We all started off as the bugler so we can (learn to) control our emotions,” said Michael Standard, 39 and a member of the Naval Reserve.
Joshua Coward, 24 and also in the reserve, has done 106 of these, but it was that first one that really got to him.
“My first one tore my heart up,” said Coward, who joined Baker in folding the flag at the service. “I looked at this first one and knew he was out protecting our country.”
Donald Heflin, an active-duty petty officer, organizes many of the details. But he too started off serving on them, and his first time, he had to present the folded flag to a widow.
“I started off down on one knee with the flag, presenting. She started crying. I had to divert my eyes so I wouldn’t start crying,” he said.
Still, that experience meant almost as much to him as it did the families.
“For me, going out there and doing the detail,” he said, “it was really special for me.”
Published in The Messenger 7.23.10