Sergeant U.'s Casket

I hardly knew Sergeant U., but as it happened I was the last person to lay a hand on his casket.

Sergeant U. and I served in the same Marine Reserve infantry unit in 2002, when 9-11 was still fresh in our minds and any talk of invading Iraq was a rumor at best. By the time I deployed to the war six months later as U.S. forces began pounding north to Baghdad, Sergeant U. had left the Marine Corps—but not, as it turned out, for good.

One of the few memories I have of Sergeant U. is a clear, silent picture of him walking away from me down the barracks hallway, wearing athletic shorts and flip flops. The leopard tattoo spread across the entirety of his back stares at me, curving its paw over his left shoulder. Sergeant U. is calling out to someone ahead of him. It's a joke, because the other guy is laughing and giving him a mighty flip of the middle finger.

Not until I returned home and settled into the predictable rhythms of civilian life did I learn that Sergeant U. had recently volunteered for deployment. He’d said he felt guilty that his friends went to fight the war and he hadn’t.

Sergeant U. was killed when a sniper shot him in the armpit, just between the front and back body armor plates—one of those freak shots you could have done nothing to prevent.

His funeral was in the autumn of 2004 in upstate New York. The sun was still strong enough to give comfort through a thin band of clouds, and what breeze there was blew warm and unassuming. This was a small working-class town. The houses were nondescript, the streets bare.

There were no seats left inside the church, and I stood next to the others who knew Sergeant U. only as a Marine. We listened as intimate details of his life came forth in eulogies and the anecdotes of family and friends. Still caught between acceptance and shock, the mourners sat with different emotions flickering on their faces from one second to the next. When one speaker remembered Sergeant U.’s “ladies' man” tendencies, half a dozen old flames trembled and fell forward with their foreheads pressed to the pew in front of them.

Sergeant U.'s last-minute confidences to a favorite uncle before leaving were recounted. His last e-mail from the front was read aloud. Both humorous and telling, the message described a mortar attack that happened just as Sergeant U. was sitting down to enjoy a slice of pizza.

The service ended with a passionate rock ballad played through the straining speakers of a portable boom box. Outside, as pallbearers slid his casket into the hearse, a ragged pickup truck swerved around a nearby street corner and flew by, the driver leaning on the horn. Two American flags rigged to its cab whipped violently in the wind.

I found my good friend Corporal A. at the cemetery after the service. We stood almost exactly 90 degrees to each other as if wanting to talk, but needing to be alone at the same time. It was only because Corporal A. and I were so close, and had been through so much, that we could remain this way and avoid feeling uncomfortable. We were waiting for the family to file past the casket. I remember a young woman in a formfitting grey suit who began shaking and had to be held tight in consolation. She kept muttering, “They killed him, they killed him.” I wondered who she considered to be “they”—snipers, insurgents, terrorists, Iraqis? Her friends offered some distracting jokes and she drew her lips a tight smile and wiped her tears.

Corporal A. and I were the last ones in line to pay our respects to Sergeant U. His parents had l drifted away into a crowd of well-wishers. Most of his friends were already on their way to the bars. The cemetery manager was politely trying to ask us if we would be done soon.

I motioned for Corporal A. to go first. He did the same to me. So we went together, our feet falling into step. Without thinking, we executed a simultaneous “left face” and found ourselves in front of the coffin. We knelt. I reached toward the coffin. I’d never put my hand one, not even at my grandmother’s funeral. The casket was a matte grey, with sturdy polished silver handles, and cold to the touch. I closed my eyes, and had to concentrate to keep them shut.

I felt Corporal A. shifting next to me. For a second I had a mental picture of Corporal A. with a bandana tied around his head waiting for the helo to take us into Iraq--an image borrowed from an actual picture I took. He still asks me to make him a copy of it. He says it’s the only good photo of him from the war. Then I saw Corporal A. in the coffin in front of me. Why, I don’t know. But I was ashamed at this thought. Perhaps because it so easily could have been Corporal A., or me, locked inside that silver box. For those of us in uniform, we were all interchangeable.

I tried to come up with a prayer, tried to conjure up a profound goodbye. Nothing.

Corporal A. and I stood, took deep breaths, and walked toward the car.

At the funeral reception hosted by the VFW, a childhood friend of Sergeant U. approached us, poking Corporal A. to get his attention. “I’m a good friend of Mikey,” he said. Twice the friend was forced to catch himself from falling. His eyes were red from being drunk and from crying. He never once focused his sight on anyone of us, but rather looked toward the lower portion of our faces as though some kind of answer lay on our chins.

Corporal A. knew what was going through the friend’s mind—we all did. He started telling the friend how much Sergeant U. had trained us and helped us prepare for going to war. The friend continued to stumble. Later, he would pull Corporal A. aside and half whisper in his ear that we Marines did good things. We had something to be proud of because we fought for something while he was worthless and sitting at home. Corporal A. tried to reply but the friend drifted off.

The next day a photograph of Sergeant U.’s coffin appeared on the homepage of CNN. Nothing was written about Sergeant U. himself or the funeral—just that another American soldier had died and a handful of Iraqis too.

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