Local soldiers take part in ceremonies honoring Gerald Ford
Strength, power, athleticism, focus - those are qualities most often identified with professional athletes. It was those very same qualities, however, that served to elevate a couple of local young men into the public spotlight in a very differen...
Strength, power, athleticism, focus - those are qualities most often identified with professional athletes. It was those very same qualities, however, that served to elevate a couple of local young men into the public spotlight in a very different way last week.
Cloquet High School graduate Ryan Johnson and Wrenshall High School graduate Jason Darby played a pivotal role in the funeral of former President Gerald R. Ford as "body bearers" representing the United States Marine Corps. The fact they both attended high school and grew up only 15 minutes apart was something of an ironic coincidence, and one each is justly proud of.
"Isn't that the coolest thing about all this?" remarked Johnson. "Here we have 170,000 Marines, and a 13-man unit inside of that - and we end up in the same unit! And then, we end up on the same team for a Presidential funeral. I guess you might say we were representing the Northland!"
Johnson graduated from Cloquet High School in 1999. While in high school, he was very involved in sports, playing football and competing on the track team in shot and disc all four years. He went on to play college football at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for a couple of years but then moved on.
"I think I needed to grow up a little bit," he admitted, "so I Ieft school and enlisted in the Marine Corps."
He took his basic training at Camp Pendleton, with an eye toward joining the infantry or security forces - "Your basic John Rambo kind of stuff that every young dude wants to be for a day," he laughed.
He was in the school of infantry, getting his advanced training, when his group received a visit from a recruiter for the Marine Corps' official "Body Bearers" unit in Washington, D.C. - "the A team for the military when it comes to something like this," explained Johnson. "They told me what it was all about, and I thought it sounded like something that would interest me. I've always been an avid weight lifter and I enjoy working out a lot. It's always been a big part of my life for over 12 years now. When I went into the Marine Corps, I came in with the mind set, 'If an opportunity comes my way, I'm not going to shy away from it. I'm going to see what it's all about and I'm going to try it.'"
The Marines recruit from both the East and West coasts for Body Bearer duty, and everybody in the unit is infantry by trade. Basically, the requirement for graduation is when that individual can be trusted to perform their duty at Arlington National Cemetery and do the job at the level demanded of them.
Johnson relocated to Washington, D.C. and after four months of "excruciating" training, he graduated on Oct. 22, 2004.
"I've never gone through anything in my life that hard," he related. "It was not only strength training and endurance, but a lot of 'working on your bearing,' discipline and not showing any emotion, even though you might be physically exhausted or in pain."
Darby's story was much the same. A native of Fond du Lac, he attended Wrenshall School from sixth grade through high school, where he played football and baseball and did a lot of weight training along the way. He graduated in 2005 and had been thinking about going into the Marine Corps from the time he was in 10th grade, since his dad had been a Marine.
He was accepted into the Corps as an aviation technician, but after talking with a group of veteran Marines who were in the infantry, he changed his mind four days before leaving for basic training and decided to go into the infantry instead.
When he was at boot camp at Camp Pendleton, he was screened for Presidential security duty. Though he didn't get in, he was told since he had a clean background he was qualified to come to Washington, D.C., at some point and there might be some options open to him later on.
A week before he left the School of Infantry, he got his orders to Washington, D.C. without knowing just why he was going there. He was accepted into the Marine Corps "Body Bearer" group and started his six-month training regimen, with Ryan Johnson as one of his trainers.
"It was worse than boot camp," Darby said. "The training we did was physically unbelievable and unlike anything I'd ever done before. We had to be really strong and able to lift so much weight at such a high level [Darby can now bench press around 425 pounds]. We'd have to lift 90 pounds with one arm and march something like 150 yards. By that time, your hand is down to your knees and you can't hardly lift any more, and even after your grip goes, you have to use the other hand to try gripping it still. Once you're done, you can take a half hour break or so and then hit the weight room and start in again."
Darby graduated from training the day before Thanksgiving last fall and had already participated in 82 funerals at Arlington Cemetery by that time, mostly for families of Marines, retired Marines, a few active duty Marines and a few officers.
An untraditional occupation
Though the idea of making a living at participating in funerals may not be appealing to some, Johnson said what the "Body Bearer" unit does is something entirely different.
"There's nothing that we do that's really depressing or morbid or anything like that," he said. "We focus so much on delivering the best possible service to the family of the service member or dignitary. We're so concerned about performing at our absolute best that things like that don't even enter into our minds. It's a very professional group."
Darby agrees. He said the men in the unit are trained to such a high degree that they learn to screen out what's going on around them and focus entirely on the task at hand.
"I try not to even blink sometimes," he said. "I won't swallow or do anything. It often gets pretty emotional, with the family behind you crying or somebody giving a eulogy and you have to stand there holding the flag and not break or anything. You just have to focus on one spot. The second that the hearse pulls up at a funeral, I kind of space out and the only thing I think about is, 'What's my next move? Where are we going to go and how are we going to do it?' You can't think about what's going on, or you're going to miss a mark or a cue and mess up, and we don't do that."
The devil's in the details
Physical training is not the only thing that goes into getting ready to serve as a Body Bearer. Darby said the uniform has to be letter perfect, with brass buttons shined (he favors preshined, anodized buttons instead), pants creased and shoes shined ("Pledge is my best friend!") and edge dressed (it takes one hour per coat of shiny gloss and a minimum of three coats).
The passing of a President
When former President Gerald Ford's health began to decline recently, Johnson and Darby and the other 10 men in their unit were alerted that two Marines would be needed to serve as part of a combined services unit at his eventual funeral. It was no real surprise, therefore, when the knock came on the doors of their respective barracks rooms around 2 a.m. the morning of Monday, Jan. 1.
"They said President Ford had passed away and that we should get our gear together and be ready to go," said Darby.
"I got everybody up, we had a meeting and met with some of our higher ups to figure out who was doing what and when and then pretty much went forth from there," said Johnson. "I knew I was going to be either on the Capitol steps team or the flyway team. They put me on the traveling team to California and Michigan, and I was really proud to be a part of it."
From there, the men got a couple of hours of sleep, got back up at 5:30 a.m. and were basically on standby waiting for word on what exactly was going to go on. Then they got the word they'd be leaving in one hour. They flew from Andrews Air Force Base out to Palm Springs, where they spent the next three days bivouacked in the gym at the College of the Desert Community College.
"It was such short notice, with so many people, they had couldn't put anything else together for us," explained Johnson. "We had 140 military members sleeping on cots in the gym! It looked pretty funny."
After the men got there, they had a day or two to rehearse - a period of time when Darby admitted there were a few kinks to be worked out.
"We were told the Presidential casket could weigh up to 900 pounds," he explained. "Normally, our unit trains with a 150-pound casket - and the Army, Air Force and Navy guys had trouble lifting even that."
Darby voiced his concerns to one of his superior officers and was told to do whatever he felt needed to be done to make sure the men were prepared when the actual event came about.
"I woke up that night at about 2:15 a.m.," he related, "and since we were sleeping in the gym of a college, I went and found the weight room, took about 200 pounds' worth of weights, and put them in the practice casket, closed it, draped the flag back over it and then went back to sleep."
He said the next morning the men were moaning and groaning about how heavy the casket was and most just assumed it seemed that way because they were so sore from all the training.
Later, when they found out what he'd done, he said they couldn't believe he'd done put them through that - but it worked!
"After Ford laid in repose in the church in Palm Springs and his body arrived back at the air field," related Johnson, "my team and I took him from the hearse and transported him to Air Force One for his depart to Washington.
On to Michigan
From there, they flew directly to Michigan, where Ford's body was eventually flown from Washington, D.C. and they were at the airfield and took him from Air Force One into the hearse and to the Ford Museum, where he laid in repose for an evening.
"The people of Grand Rapids, Mich., really turned out for this man," commented Johnson. "They showed a lot of love. After that, they held a private church ceremony for him in the church where he'd been married. We escorted him from the hearse and an Army pall bearer and I took him down the center aisle. It was kind of a spooky feeling, walking down the aisle and to our right was Dick Cheney and all these really powerful people. I was just this very small cog in a very big wheel. Ceremonial discipline was at peak performance throughout the whole ceremony."
As the group of pallbearers transported Ford's casket back to the hearse, they were greeted by barrage of television cameras.
"Even when I was coming out of the chapel, I wasn't really aware of all the television cameras and everything," said Darby. "I always stare at a single point and concentrate on that point and think about what I have to do next. When I was coming out of the chapel, all I stared at was a little metal piece on the top of a fence post. Once I started turning toward the hearse, I set my focus on the rear view mirror of the hearse."
A job well done
The men returned to Washington, D.C. on Thursday afternoon, where Darby departed for Minnesota for a brief leave and Johnson was given a much-deserved day off - and slept 14 hours straight!
Over the course of the last couple of years, President Ford's funeral was the 451st funeral that Johnson has performed, and Darby is following in his footsteps with 121.
Johnson has about 11 months left of his enlistment contract, and he plans on leaving the service and going back to school, getting his degree and starting the rest of his life.
"The Marine Corps got what it wanted out of me, and I also got what I wanted out of it. It put a little discipline in me!" said Johnson.
Darby still has just under three years to go in his current enlistment and will explore his future options at that time. And though his experience in the military has only just begun, he is already able to reflect on what he does with surprising maturity and insight.
"If it weren't for the honor that comes with this job, I might have a problem doing it," he said. "But after doing 50 funerals and suddenly getting a letter from a family in Montana whose son we helped bury, you realize that what we do really means a lot to a lot of people and makes you believe you're really making a difference."
He said since their unit is one of the non-deployable units in the United States Marines, he and his fellow comrade sometimes field criticism from other soldiers who aren't as fortunate.
"They think because we don't have to go to Iraq or places like that, we don't know what the war is all about," he said, "but doing what we do, we are a lot closer to that conflict than anyone thinks - by given those men their final honor."
Pine Journal Publisher/ reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: email@example.com .