Aug. 13, 2006
JESSE HAMILTON
Courant Staff Writer

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.     
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