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thedrifter
08-13-06, 10:18 AM
Marines At Home: Guard Of Honor

By JESSE HAMILTON
Courant Staff Writer

August 13 2006

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. -- The guard doesn't move a muscle. He stands rigid, white-gloved hands clasped in the small of his back. His quiet is a reflection of this place, a room where the slightest whisper thunders.

The silence is so powerful it seems to seep outside into the dark of Kurt's town, deadened now in its midnight sleep. The clock has turned, and the first minutes of tomorrow have come. This is Kurt's day.

Another guard enters the room, passing the empty rows of chapel benches. He walks deliberately, measuring his steps, squaring the corners of his turns until he stands before the other. The Marines exchange salutes and trade places, in slow motion, as if they don't want to wake Kurt.

The replacement stands at his post next to the casket - Lance Cpl. Kurt E. Dechen's casket.

Nine Marines from Kurt's unit, Plainville-based Charlie Company, take turns maintaining constant guard beside Kurt. Since his body arrived on U.S. soil, days after insurgent bullets found him on the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, at least one member of Charlie Company has been with him. But their duty is almost over.

Three Marines are on their shift of casket watch at the funeral chapel. Sgt. Zack Britt, Cpl. Terry Hanechak and Cpl. Devon Julien all served with Kurt and knew him. One is always on post, standing at the head of the flag-draped casket, a flash of red and white stripes in his peripheral vision. The others wait through the night and talk.

Cruel luck, or kind, kept the three from the Fallujah deployment with the 200 other reservists because of medical holds. Britt: unacceptable blood pressure. Hanechak: broken eardrum. Julien: injured knee.

They knew Kurt, but not well. This isn't about friends. This is what Marines do for their dead. Kurt may have been shot to death thousands of miles away, but Britt, from Southington, says, "We know what was in his head, what he was feeling. He was a Marine who was doing his job to the fullest."

Britt isn't trying to sound hard when he calls such a death an "occupational hazard." It's just that the sergeant, like many other Marines, wouldn't want to be portrayed as a victim if he were killed. And he doesn't think Kurt - the big, smiling Vermont native - would want that, either.

He also isn't being callous when he says, "The end of Kurt's Marine Corps career will probably be the highlight of mine." He's just trying to explain how important it is that he's been given this assignment, and an even greater task: to read something at the funeral.

Their choice or not, the fact that these three Marines had to stay home weighs on them. Traces of guilt amplify their need to be at Davis Memorial Chapel with Kurt in these pre-dawn Friday hours. "It could have been me. He might have taken my spot," Britt says. When he stands next to the casket, he thinks about that. He thinks about what Kurt and the other guys patrolling Fallujah were doing that moment on Aug. 3, Kurt's 24th birthday, when he got hit.

Those thoughts may not go away, but there is plenty to do in this moment. "This is my part right now," Britt says. If he can't do his part on patrol in Fallujah, he says, then he can do it in the sanctuary of Davis Memorial Chapel. And, he says, the guys in Fallujah are counting on it.

When Julien, from Windsor, stands post, he's thinking about the bond among Marines: "We're all considered brothers to each other." He wants to do this right to show how much Kurt and his family mean to him.

"This is the least we could do for him," Britt says. "He's our Marine."

After midnight, another shift of three arrives in the softly lit sanctuary, relieving Britt at his post. So he and the other two return to their hotel to see if they can sleep for a few hours.

Throughout the morning, Britt practices his reading for the funeral. The words belong to 1st Sgt. Ben Grainger, the senior enlisted Marine with Charlie Company in Fallujah. Grainger wrote about keeping the wolves at bay. "We do this task for we have been chosen to do this task," he wrote. "Those that have never had the calling to join will never understand what it is that we carry on our shoulders." Britt reads it over and over, trying different inflections, wanting to get it right.

"We gotta put it all together today," Britt says. Today will make indelible memories for Kurt's family. So the Marines will all keep their composure and get the details right. Britt is thinking about his speech and the flag-folding ceremony and the steep stairs to the rear of the church, where he and the other pallbearers will bring the large casket. "You only get one shot."

He has decided to wear a Charlie Company T-shirt under his dress uniform. It's not regulation, but he wants it on him today. He fastens the brass buttons of his uniform, and the T-shirt is hidden.

When the Marines arrive outside the chapel, another Marine from Charlie Company, Staff Sgt. James Battisti, says under his breath: "It's time to go to work."

A senator and a governor are getting themselves ready for Kurt's funeral; current and former Marines from around New England are on the roads; the family prepares; the town begins to come alive. Here in the chapel, the Marines spend their last moments alone with Kurt.

The final Marine to relieve the guard, Staff Sgt. Fredy Tellocastillo, is the first since the casket arrived in its curtained alcove who doesn't stand as a guard. Instead, he bends to the casket's handle and pushes it out from beside the deep red curtains and stark white cross. As he moves the star-spangled casket up the aisle, the floor creaks under his footsteps, invading the silence.

Marine pallbearers, including Britt, Hanechak and Julien, are standing at attention at the exterior door. But the wheeled platform under the casket catches on a rug in the entryway before reaching them. The funeral home's staff hurries to help.

Not far away, in the church where Kurt was baptized, the minister prepares for his farewell. He'll walk his funeral congregation through the valley of the shadow of death. He'll declare that Kurt has brought the reality of the war home to Springfield. And he'll say of Kurt, "He knew he was surrounded by love."

The Marines in the doorway move to the casket, still caught on the rug. It's a tight hallway, and they squeeze around the sides of the casket. They curl their white-gloved fingers around its handles and lift it free. Then they turn in unison and carry Kurt through the door.

Contact Jesse Hamilton at jhamilton@courant.com.

Ellie