In a poorly lighted subterranean parking garage in Washington D.C., a detachment of U.S. Marines gather before dawn to train beside a flag-draped casket. They are the "Body Bearers", an elite unit that carries deceased Marines to their final resting place. A black coffin lid mounted on a wall bears their motto "The Last to Let You Down."
These Marines perform three to five funerals every day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The caskets they lift and carry can weigh up to 800 pounds. The Marines come together every morning for hours upon hours of military etiquette driven rehearsals. They train and prepare for every contingency within a military funeral service, but it can still be extremely difficult. The most difficult moments come when they least anticipate it; the sight of a boy at his father's funeral dressed in the fallen Marine's oversized uniform, or the sound of a K-9 service dog whimpering as the Body Bearers inter its handler.
A story in "Leatherneck" Magazine captured Lance Corporal Jamen Miller's feeling about being a part of this elite unit: "What we do is out of respect. "It's anything that we do and 'The last to let you down' to me means we're going to do the job and do it perfectly every time, and we're not going to fail that Marine or their family. We provide these families with possibly their last look at the Marine Corps. We want to show them how much honor we put into it and that we care and love our brothers and sisters in the Marine Corps."
Of all the active-duty Marines, there are just 15 Body Bearers. This unit, based at the 8th and I barracks in Washington D.C., is one of the smallest in the Marine Corps. To join, Marines must be at least 5-foot-11 - to ensure the casket remains level when carried - and they must be capable of lifting more than 200 pounds. As part of their training, the Body Bearers learn to breathe only through their noses so as not to give the appearance of exerting themselves as they walk with the coffins elbow high. In addition, the Marine Corps prides itself as the only military branch to use six pallbearers for all funerals rather than eight.
On occasion, the Body Bearers are called to travel to locations all around the country to support funerals for senior statesmen, heads of state, and former Presidents of the United States. The Body Bearers are also the saluting battery at Marine Barracks Washington D.C. They fire three 40mm cannons located at the south end of the parade deck to renders honors for special events and visiting dignitaries.
As with the Marines of the Silent Drill Platoon, the Body Bearers are selected from the School of Infantry based on height, but unlike their comrades, they have to pass a series of initial strength tests to make the cut. On a daily basis, the Body Bearers train rigorously to maintain military bearing under the stress and weight of the casket. The Marines take their training seriously because they truly understand the solemn mission at hand. Being a Body Bearer mentally changes the Marine, instilling a heightened sense of duty, honor, and esprit de corps.
I've never forgotten something a much-decorated Marine Corps Master Gunny Sergeant said to a room full of 98% civilian business people. Upon retiring from the Marines, he had worked for more than 25 years as a business executive in civil aviation as a Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul expert. At his farewell party, he had one simple message for his team, "Take care of your people and they’ll take care of you.”
This is a battlefield metaphor that every military service member has heard and taught from boot camp or Officer Candidate School (OCS). Most civilians have heard this expression, and many try to practice it regarding their employees because they understand it as a fundamental management truth. Employees who feel their managers "have their back" induce unwavering loyalty while those who do not pay the price.
When I think about myself as an employee, I always remember how hard I worked when I knew my boss, my team or my organization had my best interests at heart, and genuinely wanted to develop and advance me. Now mind you I know business is business, and naturally, I understand there are times when realities require painful life-altering decisions. But even in the worst of times if your employees believe you genuinely care about their well-being, you’ll have the best chance of eliciting their best performance.
Can you look around your organization, at your people and say you are doing you're very best for them, their projects and the organization? Can you be a Body Bearer and always be the last to let them down?