Soldiers Reflect on Carrying Reagan's Casket
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 10, 2004 When Justin Rogers and Travis Sullivan were born, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States.
A joint-service honor guard transfers former President Ronald
Reagan's casket from a hearse to a caisson during a historic ceremony in
Washington June 9. Army Spc. Travis Sullivan, from "The Old Guard" ceremonial
unit, is at the left rear. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Samuel Shavers,
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The evening of June 9, these two young men, now both Army specialists in the prestigious ceremonial unit, "The Old Guard," were members of the team that carried Reagan's casket up the steps and into the U.S. Capitol.
"I was kind of young (when Reagan was president), but all of my family members told me what a great job he did for our country," Rogers said in an interview at Fort Myer, Va., just moments before their unit, Company E, 3rd U.S. Infantry, departed for downtown to perform their solemn duties. "It's quite an honor."
Sullivan called it "a heck of an honor" to be participating in Reagan's funeral. "He's definitely one of the best presidents we've had in the history of the nation."
Both soldiers were out of town visiting family when they got "the call." But neither needed to wait for the Army to tell them; as soon as they heard Reagan had died, both knew they would be called to duty.
Rogers was visiting his parents in New Jersey June 5 when he heard Reagan had died. When the phone rang an hour and a half later, "I told my parents, 'That's the Army calling right there. I've got to go back,'" he said.
Sullivan had returned to Wisconsin to see his younger sister graduate from high school. He was working the fields on his parents' dairy farm when the Army reached him.
Sullivan originally was scheduled to be part of the team that flew to California to carry Reagan's casket during official honors there. But he couldn't get a flight out of Wisconsin soon enough to depart for California, and ended up on the Washington-based team instead.
Both men said their parents were extremely proud to have their sons participate in honoring a deceased president.
"My mom was ecstatic," Rogers said. "(She) started crying right there."
Sullivan said his parents thought the honor was "the greatest thing since sliced bread."
The ceremonial movement of Reagan's remains consisted of several steps. A hearse, surrounded by a motorcade, carried the casket from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., to the Ellipse in front of the White House. There, an honor guard transferred the casket to a horse-drawn caisson for the trip up Constitution Avenue to the U.S. Capitol. Sullivan was part of this honor guard.
The eight-man team -- consisting of two soldiers, two sailors, two Marines, an airman and a Coast Guardsman - marched with the caisson, then carried the casket up the first set of steps of the Capitol.
That is where the logistics got tricky. Because the Capitol has so many steps reportedly 99 and the casket weighs about 720 pounds, a second team took over during the casket's journey up the steps. Rogers was a member of this second team.
At the top of the steps, the first team took over again and carried the casket into the Rotunda for the fallen president to lie in state.
The process will be performed in reverse June 11 when Reagan's body is moved to Washington's National Cathedral for a state funeral.
The joint-service nature of this event created an extra challenge for the team members. Each service has its own procedures for funerals and other ceremonial functions. Pretty much every waking hour between June 6 and June 9's event were spent practicing, the team members said.
The troops even practiced going up and down the Capitol steps with a 700-pound casket, with the rehearsals generally lasting late into the night. On June 7 they were at the Capitol steps until midnight. The next night, the practice lasted until 2 a.m.
Both soldiers said this funeral is the largest in scope they've ever participated in, and both were mindful of the worldwide television coverage they'd be part of.
Rogers noted his mother would be watching her television with bated breath. "Trust me," he said with a chuckle, "she's called everyone up she works with, my grandparents, everybody."
Sullivan said the key to containing his nerves is to take it one step at a time. "One day at a time, one rehearsal at a time," he said. "Hopefully today goes off well so we can honor (Reagan) the way he should be honored.
Rogers' and Sullivan's day-to-day job is to be part of the ceremonial detail that performs funerals for veterans in Arlington National Cemetery. "Technically this is like everything we do every day," he said. "But this is in front of God and country; it's a lot bigger scale."
Despite the scope of the event and the late president's prominence, the soldiers said Reagan would receive the same amount of respect they pay to every veteran whose funeral they perform in Arlington National Cemetery.
"As far as the amount of respect we pay, it's just the same as everyone else," Sullivan said. "(Fallen service members are) all worthy of the same respect. That's what we preach to each other; that's what we strive to do."
Rogers said he feels a connection with every veteran whose funeral he participates in. "I feel like they're my brothers," he said. "They're my brothers in arms. It's a great honor doing funerals, no matter whose funeral it is.
"They served their country," he continued. "And in the end, I'm putting them back in the ground, showing them that respect. It's the last thing that the family sees."