There are 182,000 active duty Marines today. They serve in many different kinds of units, “in the air, on land, and sea” all over the world. But the smallest unit in the Corps has one of its most difficult and honored jobs.
They are the Marine Corps Body Bearers stationed at the Marine Barracks at 8th and I in southwest Washington, D.C. They serve their fallen Marine Corps brothers and sisters and their families every day at Arlington National Cemetery. Their motto is, “The Last To Let You Down.”
You might think that what this unique Marine Corps unit does is merely a ceremonial job, but that would be a serious misperception of the job and of the men who do it. Certainly, it does not get much press. They are mainly anonymous to the families they are serving at the many funerals they participate in each day, but those families, in many cases, get their final look at the Marine Corps and its Semper Fidelis brotherhood through the solemn, perfectly choreographed ways that these men carry out their duties at the gravesites of their fallen Marine brothers and sisters.
These men of the Marine Corps Body Bearers unit are truly the embodiment of the best of the Marine Corps. They are truly “men for others.”
According to a recent article in the Washington Post written by T. Rees Shapiro, in order to be a member of this unit a Marine must be at least 5-feet-11. This ensures that when they carry each casket it remains level. They each must also be able to lift more than 200 pounds. Their training is as difficult as boot camp each day.
These Marines train every day in a parking garage at Arlington, with heavy workout equipment to build their strength. Some of the more unorthodox training they do includes taking part in drills where they carry cement-filled trash cans and practice carrying caskets, that are filled with weight plates. They do this because the caskets they must carry at each funeral can weigh up to 800 pounds. They even eat diets that build muscle mass.
This is all necessary because, and this is a matter of Marine Corps pride, they have only six men assigned to carry each casket, while the other services all have eight-man teams to carry out the same duties. Their training shows too. They are imposing figures around the barracks. There is a metal pull-up bar in their practice area that is bent from their weight and the constant use.
These six men have to carry those caskets flawlessly, with the pomp and dignity they believe their Marine brother or sister is due. When they bear the casket they do it at elbow height, not with their arms straight down.
These men do from three to five funerals every day. You might think that their duties become a matter of routine for them, but they do not. It is one thing to prepare for the arduous task of bearing the casket, but there is no way to prepare for the sudden emotional moments that can happen at a graveside ceremony. They are men, after all, not robots. They too are often moved, but must not show it.
According to the article in the Washington Post, one of the Marines in the unit, Cpl. Salvatore Sciascia, 21, has done some 550 of these funerals, and is the most experienced in the current unit. He is quoted saying, “Each funeral takes a part of you…Selfish people don’t make it here. It’s not about my temporary pain. It’s about the families.”
When they participate in these funerals, their dress blue uniforms are immaculate. According to the Washington Post article their uniforms are slightly modified with “the underside of the arms of their wool coats stitched with mesh so that the bulky cloth does not inhibit a stiff salute.”
Because of the very precise flag folding ceremonies they perform, they must regularly change their white gloves because they become tinted red from the flags they fold. As they carry the caskets to the gravesites they do so walking very precisely heel to toe, which enables them to maintain balance and walk steadily on the often-uneven ground of the cemetery.
As a final gesture of honor, the six body bearers lift each casket to eye level and hold it there for up to ten seconds before lowering the casket to the ground. This last gesture is where the motto, “The Last To Let You Down” comes from.
Cpl. Sciascia sees this final gesture in a particularly personal way.
“The last to let you down to me means we’re going to do the job and do it perfect every time, and we’re not going to fail,” he told the Washington Post.
These Marine Corps Body Bearers give the families of the fallen a real sense of the respect and the honor the Corps has for each fallen Marine brother or sister. The carefully practiced and fine tuned detail of the way they carry out their duties, gives each funeral ceremony the honor and the dignity due to one who has fallen in service to this nation. It recognizes, in its military pomp and circumstance, the value of each Marine laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. What this small unit of Marines does for the fallen and their families is beyond measure. They speak no words. They simply bear their brother and sister Marines with quiet, disciplined respect and dignity.
Though their duties may be unsung, what they do for the Marine Corps family is without equal.
Follow us on Instagram
Get deals on patriotic items from The Veterans Site store each week!
The Veterans Site wishes to honor the service of the Marine Corps Body Bearers at Arlington National Cemetery for their selfless service to our fallen Marines and their families. You embody the ideals of the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis. Your duties show us all the fact that Marines are Fratres Aeterni, brothers forever.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.