As soon as Clyde I. Hinkley’s family arrived in a procession with headlights blazing, three Army National Guard soldiers went as stiff as the headstones around them.
Two of the soldiers stood at either side of a small table holding Hinkley’s urn, flowers, photographs and a folded American flag. A third soldier stood by himself at the edge of the Maine Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery plot, a bugle tucked under his arm. None of them moved in the 10 minutes or so it took Hinkley’s family to gather around the final resting place of the 74-year-old Army veteran.
When a chaplain from the American Legion read a prayer, the brims of the soldiers’ hats tipped down almost imperceptibly, but in perfect unison. When the prayer was over, they tipped back so the gold piping circling the hats was parallel with the ground.
When the time came, the bugler played taps and the others unfurled an American flag, yanking away the final fold so the colors blazed as the breeze tousled them in the afternoon sun.
They carefully folded the flag into a tight triangle with a white star situated at the tip. Refolding the flag in front of the family is done so they know it was done by United States soldiers.
Staff Sgt. Norman Voter of Auburn turned methodically to Henry A. Hinkley of Norridgewock, Clyde Hinkley’s brother, and dropped to one knee while the other two soldiers marched slowly away. Voter stared into Henry Hinkley’s tear-filled eyes. “Sir, this flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.”
Voter stood and slipped his hands away from the flag. He saluted the man and marched slowly away, trailing the two others. Even as the three soldiers rounded a corner in the distance, they remained in reverent lock-step.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Henry Hinkley, tearing up again as the gathering disbanded. “I didn’t expect a funeral like this. It was very touching.”
Since 2004, the Maine Military Funeral Honors Program has provided an honor guard free of charge at any Army veteran’s funeral whose family requested it. In 2009, members of the approximately 20-soldier unit presided more than 1,178 funerals in Maine and eastern Canada. On busy days such as May 15, when they were summoned to 19 funerals all over Maine, they rely on volunteers and retirees. In the program’s six-year history, there has been only one instance when the unit was unable to fulfill a family’s request.
“If at all possible, we don’t let that happen,” said Retired Master Sgt. Frank Norwood, the program’s coordinator. “It’s our policy.”
Norwood said the other branches of the military have their own honors groups.
The Honor Guard, which is a full-time assignment for most members of the unit, has provided military honors in situations ranging from standing in a tidal mud flat to rifle volleys off the dock outside a family camp. They have appeared on boats and at party funerals where members of the family were drunk. When they’re not at a funeral, they’re training.
At the Augusta Armory on Wednesday, soldiers practiced the procedures several times in a parking lot under broiling 85-degree sunshine. If someone is prone to fainting from heat exhaustion, it’s better to find out during practice, said Staff Sgt. Jacob Mathews, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the unit.
“During a funeral, they’ll take it to that point,” he said. “There’s nobody in this unit who’s going to just walk away because they don’t feel good.”
In addition to the exhaustive practicing, part of what keeps the unit sharp is a relentless system of internal criticism. Most mistakes are imperceptible to anyone outside the Honor Guard, but even feet too far apart or a wrinkled pant leg is worthy of ridicule.
In services where the Honor Guard provides rifle volleys, one mistake that happens occasionally is someone not cocking the World War II-era M-14 rifle hard enough to put a fresh round in the chamber. It takes strength and concentration, said Mathews, particularly while trying to remain in perfect unison. Anyone who makes that mistake puts his or her name on the shell casing, which is kept atop a cabinet in the Augusta Armory, where it stays until the soldier can successfully repeat the procedure through a full clip of 20 shells.
“It’s a grueling process,” said Mathews. “Sometimes it takes two or three attempts.”
Some soldiers handle the emotional drain of the funeral-to-funeral schedule by trying not to focus on the deceased, while others do try to make a connection.
Staff Sgt. Christopher McBean of Farmingdale said he tries not to become emotionally involved.
“I try not to get attached to the families,” he said. “If you let yourself get attached to every single family, you’re not going to be doing this for very long.”
Sgt. Brooke Poirier of Oakland, who has been involved in more than 800 funerals since 2006 — more than anyone else in the unit — said she used to think like McBean, but her process has evolved.
“Now I listen to their stories,” she said. “I like to see their lives in a little glimpse.”
Despite the unit’s directive to conduct itself without emotion and according to a tight script, there are small ways to show empathy. Poirier said she sometimes squeezes a bereaved loved one’s hand as she’s presenting the flag.
“A lot depends on the situation. If they need a hug, you go ahead and hug them,” she said. “We know we’ve done something right if we see emotion.”