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Stoic In Devotion `Marines Don't Cry'
Marines don't smile.
It's strength they want to show now, as they stand in this field of white marble markers. Strength for Cpl. Jordan Pierson. Strength for his family. Utterly unruffled.
So they watch without expression as their friend's casket is prepared for the grave. They stand, their mirror-polished shoes on Arlington National Cemetery grass, the brass buttons on their dress blues shining, each face a solemn mask. The way they were taught.
``Marines don't smile,'' one of the Marines from Charlie Company had said that morning at the hotel.
Not that there's any cause to smile here, in one of the country's most somber places, where markers bearing the names of the latest conflicts have filled new swaths of land in the five years since 9/11. The Marines stand behind a crowd from Connecticut and greet the rifle volleys with stoic faces. They don't flinch at the 24 notes of taps, which wrench a fresh round of sobs from Pierson's friends and family.
Most of the Marines in the group volunteered to drive more than 300 miles for this hourlong ceremony. They didn't have to be here. But it was an easy choice. Of course they want to see this to the end. Pierson deserves it.
So, these Marine reservists from the Plainville-based unit -- most of them kept back from the company's deployment to Iraq for medical reasons -- stand as symbols and reminders for Pierson's people. This is what Pierson was, their quiet presence shouts. He was part of something serious and had won a place in a fraternity that makes a try at transcending death.
The Marines, who don't smile.
But of course, they do.
The day before, on Tuesday, a corporal and three lance corporals climb into a borrowed military van: Cpl. Terry Hanechak, 25, from West Springfield; Lance Cpl. Roberto Diaz, 22, from New Britain; Lance Cpl. James Serafino, 22, from Stamford; and Lance Cpl. Gregory Duplessie, 25, from Thomaston.
Except for fresh haircuts, tight to their scalps, they look like any other young men, in T-shirts and shorts or jeans, earrings glinting in Diaz's ears. They adjust the stereo to find a compromise: classic rock, while Diaz plugs into the hip-hop on his laptop. They are young guys going on a trip. And in each other's easy company, they smile.
These four are some of the Charlie Company Marines in a strange limbo. They were called for war and ready to serve. But Hanechak's eardrum blew from an infection. Diaz's knee gave out. Duplessie suffered recurring bouts of tonsillitis. Serafino had a herniated disk in his back.
None of these is a grave illness, but each was enough to keep the Marine from getting medical clearance to go to Fallujah with the unit.
So they've watched from afar. They've seen friends come home in caskets. They feel guilty about not being over there with their comrades, exorcising the demons of 9/11. And they are anxious to do whatever they can on this end. So they are driving south through the Atlantic states, every mile taking them closer to the remains of the young corporal shot to death in Fallujah and about to be buried with military honors.
The gravity of their mission doesn't muffle them. They talk and laugh about girls and cars. The van is a stage for the rehashing of exploits, from military training exercises to nocturnal adventures.
Delaware becomes Maryland, then D.C., and finally the van is passing the vast Pentagon and the green of Arlington National Cemetery, beside which the four Marines find their hotel and join others from Charlie Company who have made the trip. Through the windows of the hotel, they can see distant fields of the cemetery, salted with marble.
As evening comes, the Marines descend on Washington, testing the engine of a rented Cadillac and moving wherever the night pulls them.
At the first stop, it's a round of whiskeys. ``To Pierson.''
Duplessie, Diaz and Serafino stop at a nightclub, but the bouncers won't let Duplessie in because he's wearing shorts. He doesn't want to hold his buddies back, so he spends $100 buying the pants off a guy outside. The two swap pants for shorts in the street.
The next day's somber duty doesn't cast a shadow on the Marines' frenzied night. They know Pierson would be next to them if he could be. The 21-year-old from Milford could keep up with anybody, they know. And with Pierson now only a few miles away, it is their final night on the town with him.
Wednesday, the day of Pierson's ceremony, Arlington -- a machine of funerary efficiency -- is planning for five burials.
The Charlie Company Marines have prepared themselves meticulously, checking each emblem and ribbon, rolling the lint from the backs of each other's uniforms. They look official, even though they will be only guests today. Arlington has its own honor guards, the most highly trained in the country.
The Marines drive into the cemetery, unsure of where they are supposed to be or what they should be doing. They pull over as a hearse and procession approach.
``Should we salute?'' Serafino asks, lifting his white-gloved hand to his brow.
``You don't salute in a vehicle,'' Hanechak answers.
Serafino lowers his hand as the hearse passes. ``Are you sure?''
They have conducted their own funeral ceremonies back home, thick with ritual and tradition, but this is the pinnacle of such things, and there are a lot of rules. When Pierson's ceremony is to begin, and a crowd gathers, some of the Marines aren't sure what part to play. In the end, their only job is to stand and watch.
Pierson's ``ashes to ashes, and dust to dust'' join more than 260,000 others here. As the folded flag is passed to his parents, the family asks for a moment alone with the casket. The crowd disperses.
The Marines congregate around a nearby headstone. ``Brian Scott Letendre, Capt, U.S. Marine Corps,'' it reads.
Letendre, an active-duty officer whose family lived in New Britain, was with Charlie Company and went to Iraq, where a suicide car bomb killed him in Ramadi in May. The Marines give him their white-gloved salutes and crouch to touch the stone.
``Marines don't cry,'' Duplessie will say later.
But the day has struck him deeply. He watched all the people weep for Pierson, all these people who won't ever be quite the same. Then he looked up and saw the stones in eye-bending rows to the horizon, all exactly alike, all marking this same impossible burden thousands of times over. He could hardly imagine the pain this place had witnessed.
Marines don't cry. But, of course, they do. If it happens, it's better in private or with each other, they say. As Diaz confesses, when he stood his late-night turns at watch beside Pierson's open casket days earlier, he shed tears that the demand of his parade-rest stance wouldn't allow him to wipe.
At this famed burial ground, the white markers are moving in a slow march across the last open spaces in this famous burial ground.
``There's a lot more ground left in this cemetery,'' Serafino observes.
Hanechak's answer: ``There's always another war to fight.''
The Marines return to the hotel and shed their dress uniforms, packing them carefully away for next time.
On the dark ride home, they'll recall every detail, every step and movement of Pierson's professional honor guard, as if remembering the highlights of a World Series game. The graceful steps. The astonishing strength of each pallbearer's one-handed hold on the casket. The synchronized movements of their hands as they folded the flag. ``They were pretty tight,'' Duplessie will say. ``We gotta learn that.''
But first, they decide to make a stop at a monument. After losing their way in the tangle of D.C.'s roads and quarreling like brothers, they pull up to the Marine Corps War Memorial -- the bronze statue of the raising of the U.S. flag above Iwo Jima in World War II.
In that battle more than 60 years ago, Charlie Company was there, on the right flank of the invasion force. The latest Charlie Company Marines stare at the larger-than-life figures, towering over them, frozen in their efforts to fly the flag.
But the young Marines don't linger. They have to get on the road. Another Marine from Connecticut has died in Iraq. He'll be needing them.
Contact Jesse Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org.