Military Funerals, One of a General's Toughest Jobs

For Brig. Gen. Paul Izzo, attending military funerals is all part of a day's work. He has represented the Army at more than two dozen funerals in the past two years. As Kathleen Horan of member station WNYC reports, it's a job that never gets easier.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The Defense Department counts 2,465 American service members killed so far in Iraq. Each is entitled to a military funeral with an American flag presented to the next of kin. On the Eastern Seaboard, it is the duty of Brigadier General Paul Izzo to attend the funerals of soldiers from the Army.

From member station WNYC, Kathleen Horan reports.

KATHLEEN HORAN reporting:

Brigadier General Paul Izzo has spent more time in the military than out of it, 30 of his 52 years. Izzo served in the First Gulf War and is the Program Executive Officer in charge of Ammunitions for the Army. When Izzo is not helping to develop and build weapons for combat, he witnesses first hand what war can do. Before Izzo attends a soldier's funeral in his official capacity, he does all the research he can about a soldier and his or her family.

General PAUL IZZO (Program Executive Officer, Ammunitions, U.S. Army): I read the notes that the people send from the field so I could get a real feel for this young soldier. You learn everything you can, and then you learn everything you can about the family. May be the father wasn't around. This young soldier's father may have left when he was young, and then the grandfather raised him. So you start learning who those important people are.

HORAN: Izzo's interaction with those important people changes from funeral to funeral.

(Soundbite of Taps and weeping)

HORAN: Last month on Long Island, he found himself improvising within the structured ceremony of a military funeral. Izzo spoke with the family of Corporeal Scott Bandhold at the gravesite, and decided to give Bandhold's nine and 10 year old children their father's dog tags.

Gen. IZZO: Carina(ph), what I'm about to tell you and your brother this morning you will remember for the rest of your life, and I'm sure for generations to come in both of your families. Your father served the United States Army with distinction. And your father, without a doubt, is an American hero.

(Soundbite of weeping)

Gen. IZZO: I'm going to give you these dog tags. And you keep them and a hug.

Little girls will hug people. But what got me is, is that young man stood up and then he put his hand out there, like a strong young soldier. And he took them. He didn't really know the importance of what just took place. And I know, as I walked away from there and watched him walk, put his hand in his grandfather's hand and walk away, that some day he would know.

HORAN: Izzo believes one of the most important parts of what he brings to a soldier's family has little to do with him personally.

Gen. IZZO: I call it the magic, the star on a soldier of an officer coming in. And it represents the leadership that cares. And you could use that care to make sure that you're touching every single person you can.

HORAN: But sometimes family members aren't moved by the uniform, they're angered. It becomes a symbol of the war that killed their loved one.

Gen. IZZO: You will know pretty quick, the animosity. I would say innocent animosity, because they don't know what else to do. They're lashing out at a uniform and the Army as an institution.

HORAN: Izzo has been to 16 funerals in two years, but says he still feels the loss of these sons and daughters acutely, especially because he has four grown kids of his own.

Gen. IZZO: It is an emotional event that you become consumed in, what they could have been. And these parents see it, and you just feel it with them. And I've been to some, and just hugging the fathers and the mothers, and often wonder how they get along.

HORAN: One of the biggest heartaches, he says, is the finality of leaving that cemetery when he goes back to his other life. Izzo says it's tough to find closure with certain families. And there's days when he's driving or working, he still thinks of them.

For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Horan in New York.

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