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fontman
01-01-07, 07:30 PM
Marine bears weight of duty in stride
By Phil Trexler
Beacon Journal staff writer

Tommy Lee used to carry a football for the Mogadore Wildcats, winning all-state honors as a running back and leading his team to the state title in 2002.

Now, he's known as Lance Cpl. Thomas Lee, and he carries the bodies of fallen Marines and dignitaries.

It's a full-time job for the second-year Marine, who serves as a member of the ``World Famous Body Bearers,'' a unit composed of 13 Marines who perform all the branch's funerals.

For the past week, Lee has been assigned to the funeral services of former President Gerald R. Ford. He was seen on national television Friday helping to carry Ford's body to funeral services at a Palm Desert, Calif., church.

He is scheduled to handle the casket again this week when Ford is buried in Grand Rapids, Mich.

We spent a few minutes talking with Lee via cell phone last week after his duty at the church services in Palm Desert.

Q: You were one of two Marines seen carrying the casket into the church with other military members. What did that moment mean to you?

A: It was an honor, not just for me but for our entire group and the other military men. I got a lot of calls from people who said they saw me, and they were all excited. It's good to know people appreciate what we do.

Q: You have worked nearly 200 funerals in 18 months for Marines who died in Iraq or retired Marines who died of old age. Why would you pick funerals?

A: Well, I went into the Marines on the buddy system, but my buddy wound up in Hawaii. The Body Bearers came up. They want guys with clean backgrounds, and I have that. Then I saw a video of what the unit does, and I thought that was a cool job, sign me up. It wasn't anything I planned. But it's something I enjoy. I'm part of a close-knit group. We're around each other 24/7, and I think I have 12 best friends.

Q: Doesn't attending all those funerals depress you?

A: It's the active-duty Marines, the guys 18 or 19 years old, that really stick with you. They're the ones with girlfriends or fiancees or wives with children. These are Marines of my generation, and there's obviously more emotion. But I can't let myself get caught up in the emotion. Our unit is there to perform a service. There are certain things you do your best to block out.

Q: Ever made a mistake, like trip or fall or drop a casket?

A: I've never tripped or dropped a casket, but we make mistakes all the time that only we recognize. We try to be perfect in every service, but there are so many elements that it's impossible not to make a mistake.

Q: Is Ford's the heaviest casket you've carried?

A: Well, I didn't work President Reagan's funeral, but I heard stories about how heavy it was. President Ford's isn't the heaviest I've carried. There were a couple of generals at Arlington National Cemetery who were heavier. It's not a body-weight thing. It's usually the higher the rank, the heavier the casket.

Q: We've all seen your work: precision carrying techniques, marching, salutes, folding the flag and presenting it to a family member. How much training goes into the funeral service?

A: We get up around 5:30 or 6 in the morning and drill for about an hour. We train for about five hours. Lift weights for an hour. The flag folding probably took me a couple months to learn before I was able to perform it at a funeral. But the most time-consuming part is the actual funeral. They take about 2 hours each time.

Q: As a Body Bearer, you must be a certain height and weight and be able to lift hundreds of pounds before being accepted into the unit. How did your time playing football prepare you for the Marines?

A: I think it helped me in terms of working together as a team to achieve goals and complete an assignment. And of course, getting yelled at and told what to do is a part of football and the military.

fontman
01-01-07, 07:32 PM
More info on those &quot;select&quot; Marines, below: <br />
<br />
The Final Escort (Marine Body Bearers) <br />
Leatherneck magazine ^ | Apr 2004 | Mary D. Karcher <br />
<br />
Six gloved hands grip the flag-draped casket bearing one...