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With the lengthening conflict and mounting war dead, cities and towns around the U.S. are growing more accustomed to burying their sons and daughters. 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. The surrounding area has had 25 service members 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 PIETT (Funeral Director, Porter Loring Mortuaries): I'm Bill Piett. I am the funeral director of 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 borne off the plane by the honor guard, it allows the dignity and respect for the deceased to come off the plane before anyone else is allowed to disembark the plane.
Sergeant DAVID JONES (Honor Guard): Hi, I'm Sergeant First 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.
Mr. JONES: From the time the plane lands, we send one soldier up in the cargo hold to make sure that nothing's tampered with on the casket of the deceased soldier. When he gets up there, he makes sure the flag is properly draped, that the dog tags are the way they'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; and the airman, Crazy Ray Rangel, who played defensive back for the South San Antonio Bobcats.
Mr. SCOTT HUDDLESTON (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 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 pin on her lapel, stands in back of the assemblage.
Ms. KIM SMITH (American Gold Star Mothers): My name is Kim Smith. I am the mother of Private Robert L. Franz, 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 tearful 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 a funeral is over, the new grave joins more than 112,000 others, long rows of white marble headstones punctuated by oak, crepe 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 their life left in front of them. But still, even when we have an older vet who's served and who's retired, our heart still goes out and there's 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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