ALEX CHADWICK, host:
On Memorial Day, Americans remember men and women who have fallen in combat, American civilians, and Americans in the military, too. So on this Memorial Day, U.S. Army reserve Major Robert Schaefer, he's in the Special Forces, he takes us behind the scenes of a military funeral at Calverton National Cemetery in New York.
(Soundbite of soldiers folding flag)
MAJOR ROBERT SCHAEFER (U.S. Army Special Forces): Sailors practice folding the flag while Marines rehearse a 21 gun salute in preparation for a funeral. They're at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island, part of the military honor guard for a fallen Navy Seal.
Lieutenant Commander JAKE SNYDER (U.S. Navy): This is called a four man fold that we usually use for the full honor ceremonies that we have. It consists of the four men folding the flag, and additional two people receiving that flag, and presenting it to, in this case it's going to be an Admiral and Seal team member to present the next of kin, the fiance and the mother. So it is much more difficult to do it on a person that passed away while on active duty, especially when you look at the date of birth, and usually it's less than mine. So that kind of hits home.
MAJOR SCHAEFER: After the American Civil War, communities in the North and South set aside a day to honor those who had fallen. They say 620,00 died in that war, 620,000 more than the population of Denver, Milwaukee, Baltimore or Memphis. After World War I, the holiday became known in some places as decoration day. Today, the last Monday of May is Memorial Day. I am Major Robert Schaefer, United States Army Special Forces, the Green Berets. I hope that you will take a few minutes out of your holiday surrounded by family and friends to think of those who've given their lives so we might all enjoy the freedoms and blessings of our hard won democracy.
Staff Sergeant MOWEN TRAEGER (U.S. Marines): Well its part of military tradition courtesy that when we do a full honor ceremony that we present a 21 gun salute in honor of the fallen. So that's what my marines are here for. It consists of a seven man detail, each firing three rounds, and when you get ready to fire you go to a 45 degree angle, so that when they fire the round actually goes over the casket.
(Soundbite of guns loading)
(Soundbite of music "Taps")
MAJOR SCHAEFER: The day is done, gone the sun, from the lake from the hills from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh. "Taps," or "Butterfields Lullaby," its original name has the power to reduce the strongest and the bravest among us torrents of silent tears. I and so many others have stood in formation, and watched as our brothers and sisters were laid to rest. And no matter how much composure you think you have, if you've lost a friend in combat, as soon as the bugler blows those first few notes, you know you're going to lose it standing in front of everybody with tears falling down on your uniform.
And as those sad slow notes linger, the faces of my buddies all come back to me. And I mourn them all again. Most of all I think about Joseph Ponseck(ph), super Ponseck. We called him super because he was the best of us all. I think about Joe and when we stood on stage next to each other being awarded our green berets. I think about what a damn fine soldier he was, and how I was always a little envious of him because he could always do things a little better than I could. I think about our two years of training and then heading off to attend Special Forces group together. I think about how happy I was to see him a year later, his team relieved mine on a mission in some God forsaken place, trying to keep people from killing each other.
I remember leaning over a wooden table in a bombed out room, and pointing out to Joe on a map the exact spot where I had driven over a mine. I was lucky to have survived. I warned Joe to watch out, to be careful there. I had been home for two months when I heard that Joe's Humvee had rolled over a mine in that exact same spot. But unlike me, Joe was killed. The bastards had experimented on me realized they needed more explosive. Tried it again and killed Joe. So whenever I hear "Taps" play I think about standing there at Joe's funeral crying like a baby. I feel guilty because I think it should have been me. Am I responsible for Joe's death? Of course not, I know that.
(Soundbite of gun fire)
(Soundbite of music "Taps")
MAJOR SCHAEFER: I hate that damn song and I love that damn song. Because even if it means that I'll be embarrassed and cry like a baby, at least I'll get to be with my buddy Joe for a while. Taps is played more than 5,000 times a year at Arlington National Cemetery. When we hear "Taps" we salute if we are in uniform, and place our hands on our hearts if we're not. You should too. I'll be thinking about Joe.
(Soundbite of music "Taps")
CHADWICK: That was U.S. Army Reserve Major Robert Schaefer who serves with the U.S. Army Special Forces. He's currently on his way to Siberia. We also heard from Lieutenant Commander Jake Snyder and Petty Officer First Class Kurt Wolff, both of the U.S. Navy, and Staff Sergeant Mowen Traeger of the U.S. Marine Corps. The bugler was Air Force Lieutenant Denny Lortese. The story came to us from Producer Barrett Golding of the new NPR series Hearing Voices. NPR's Day to Day continues.
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