Burial Rituals Honor Servicemen Killed in Iraq

With the lengthening conflict in Iraq, cities and towns across America are growing more accustomed to burying their war dead. In San Antonio, Texas, 22 servicemen have been buried after dying in Iraq.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the death toll for Americans killed in Iraq reached 3,000 this weekend with yesterday's Pentagon announcement of the death of a Texas soldier. As that conflict drags on, the death toll continues to rise. The ritual of laying to rest an active duty member of the service has become more commonplace.

NPR's John Burnett reports from San Antonio, which has had 22 men die in Iraq.

JOHN BURNETT: There's nothing routine about burying a 20-year-old. Nonetheless, Iraq war fatalities have been coming home with such regularity over the past almost four years that people here have learned what to do. The ritual is well established.

Mr. BILL PYON(ph) (Funeral Director, Porter Loring Mortuaries): I'm Bill Pyon. I am a funeral director with Porter Loring Mortuaries in San Antonio. We have handled approximately, since the Iraq conflict began, about three to five services. When that casket arrives at the airport, the passengers are asked to remain on the plane. And as the casket is born off the plane by the Honor Guard, it allows the dignity and the respect for the deceased to come off the plane before anyone else is allowed to disembark the plane.

Sergeant DAVID JONES(ph) (Platoon Sergeant, Honor Guard): I am Sergeant 1st Class David Jones. I am the Honor Guard Platoon Sergeant at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in San Antonio.

BURNETT: The Honor Guard at the Fort Sam Houston Army post is responsible for honoring fallen soldiers in 63 south Texas counties.

Sgt. JONES: From the time the plane lands, we send one soldier up in the cargo hold to make sure that nothing's been tampered with on the casket of the deceased soldier. When he gets up there, he makes sure that the flag is in properly draped, that the dog tags are the way there're supposed to be.

BURNETT: The families of fallen Marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors get lots of support in San Antonio. With its four military installations and warm sunny weather, the city has one of the largest ex-military communities in the country. The mayor attends every funeral of active-duty troops.

The San Antonio Express-News runs every obituary of an Iraq fatality on the front page. There was the army sergeant known as Gonzo who was buried in his native Mexico. The infantryman and former lineman for the Kennedy High School Rockets who they called Joe Na-na(ph). And the airman, Crazy Ray Ronhel(ph) who played defensive back for the South San Antonio Bobcats.

Mr. SCOTT HUDDLESTON (Staff writer, San Antonio Express-News): I'm Scott Huddleston. I'm a staff writer with the San Antonio Express-News.

BURNETT: Huddleston figures he's written stories about at least half of the local war dead.

Mr. HUDDLESTON: One thing that I've noticed at every graveside service at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, it usually goes down like this: the family is seated, the caisson brings up the flag-draped casket. The family is in a daze; they're kind of tightened up. Then you have the gun salute, three blasts. And, you know, even if you're used to hearing it, it just, the first time you kind of jolt, you know, you recoil from it. And then, the playing of Taps. And it's during that playing of taps you can hear the sobs, the release, this chorus of sobs. And that's the thing that sticks with me over and over again.

BURNETT: Two soldiers with the Honor Guard fold the flag covering the casket into a tight triangle and an officer presents it to the next of kin. Sometimes, a pretty woman with dark brown hair, wearing a black pantsuit with a gold tin on her lapel, stands in back of the assemblage.

Ms. KIM SMITH (Mother): My name is Kim Smith. I am the mother of Private Robert Elfbrantz(ph) who was killed in Baghdad, Iraq, on June 17, 2003.

BURNETT: Smith is a local member of the American Gold Star Mothers, a 78-year-old national organization composed of women who lost a child in the armed services. At the end of the line of mourners, she tries to speak to the newly grieving family.

Ms. SMITH: I don't have a speech to go by. I kind of go by my heart. I let them know who I am, and of course I give my condolences to them. And we usually end up in a very long cheerful hug. And I'll just let them know that there's someone out there that they can call should they need someone to talk to, or cry to, or even scream to.

BURNETT: When the funeral is over, the new grave joins more than 112,000 others, long rows of white marble headstones punctuated by oak, crape myrtle, and pecan trees.

Mr. WILLIAM TROWER (Director, Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery): My name is William Trower, and I'm the director of the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

BURNETT: Trower oversaw 3,780 burials last year, only a relative handful died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. TROWER: The country itself bleeds because we are losing our sons and our daughters, because they are so young and they have so much of a life left in front of them. But still even when we have an older vet who served and who's retired, our hearts still goes out and has still a lot of pain.

BURNETT: William Trower is immensely proud of his national cemetery. He sees that the grass is mown at least 42 times a year, that at least 20,000 headstones are scrubbed clean annually, that pinwheels and balloons and teddy bears are quietly collected from gravesites because they're considered undignified. And he sees to it that the new graves are sodded, squared and tended just as carefully as those who came before.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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