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Marines transport the casket carrying the body of a fallen Marine during a military funeral at Quantico National Cemetery on Dec. 5.

Photo by John Hollis

Funerals among most sacred duties for ceremonial platoon

12 Dec 2014 | John Hollis Marine Corps Base Quantico

They hail from an array of varying backgrounds, some arriving at Marine Corps Base Quantico for their first duty station, while others come more seasoned with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan already to their credit.

Few of the 17 Marines in the Ceremonial Platoon volunteered for their current assignment, but they’ve all come to share the same desire to honor their fellow Marines as they transition home by paying a final solemn tribute to them in the military funerals they conduct as part of their many daily responsibilities.

“This is a way we can honor those who died fighting and those who came before us,” said Sgt. Matthew Kies, detail commander, Ceremonial Platoon, Headquarters and Service Battalion. “These Marines have earned this honor.”

Ceremonial Platoon, which is also responsible for base color guard duties, as well as various parades, wreath laying ceremonies and the raising and lowering of colors each day, has performed as many as seven funerals per week, once even managing three on a single day.

The high precision necessary means drilling up to as many as six hours per day, as well as daily weight lifting sessions so as to be physically prepared to carry heavy flag-draped caskets, said Gunnery Sgt. Holly Askins, staff noncommissioned officer in charge, Ceremonial Platoon, Headquarters and Service Battalion. It makes for a challenging assignment - physically as much as mentally - but the Marines chosen for this task take their duties seriously.

“They understand their purpose and never complain,” Askins said. “Once they get here and see what ceremonial platoon entails, they don’t want to leave.”

Maj. R. Arron Wilhelmsen, head current operations branch, said the somber duty is among “the most important responsibilities we can have as a Marine at all.”

“One of the greatest honors we can have is to give honor to those who either died fighting or served before us,” he said. “Our legacy is huge.”

The job, however, hits especially close to home for some, such as Lance Cpl. Antonio Mora, flag presenter and folder, Ceremonial Platoon, Headquarters and Service Battalion. Mora lost several friends over the course of his two tours in Afghanistan and said that he can’t help but think of them with every funeral service in which he participates.

“It gives me a flashback,” he said. “It reminds me of the guys I lost. I think of friends in every funeral.”

Ceremonial Platoon Marines are typically rotated out every nine months, the lone exception being the platoon color sergeant who is handpicked by the base sergeant major to serve for an entire year, Askins said. Fifteen Marines take part in each funeral service, with six assigned to casket detail and seven to the rifle line. A detail commander and a rifle noncommissioned officer fill out their ranks. Each of the Marines charged with performing funeral services are cross-trained in the various duties, their roles determined by the final rank of the deceased.

Kies is the only current Marine to have volunteered for the duty after being told that it was a great way to honor the Marines who came before him. He makes sure his Marines arrive early to map out each location, but conceded that talking with grieving family members is always the most difficult part.

Kies, however, leaves with the satisfaction of knowing that his efforts are greatly appreciated.

“You know that the work you put in on a daily basis really does honor those who came before you,” he said.

— Writer:

Marine Corps Base Quantico