March honor guard gives final honors to America’s veterans

Watchara Phomicinda — LA Daily News staff photographer

(Final in a two-part series on honor guard, reprinted with permission)

Gerald Morgan knew this day was coming when doctors told him a few weeks ago that the cancer had swept through his dad’s body.

It had just been 18 months prior that the initial diagnosis was first made. It seemed unfathomable. This was the man who, when Morgan was just a boy, pulled the car over at the scene of an accident on a Los Angeles freeway and began yanking people from the wreckage.

Didn’t the cancer know that it couldn’t mess with the guy who bandaged the woman who was bleeding profusely while he also flagged down cars for help? Didn’t it know he served in the U.S. Air Force in Southeast Asia — stopping smugglers and dangerous human traffickers just as the Vietnam War was starting? Didn’t cancer know this was his dad. Tough. Ten-feet-tall in a 6-foot frame. He never stopped fighting. But he was also a realist.

“He was never afraid of dying,” Morgan said. “He was confident in his faith. He flat-out told us that when his time was up, it was up.”

Time ran out for Airman Roland Morgan on May 8. He was 77.

The funeral was set for May 19 at Riverside National Cemetery. Morgan woke up early, put on his dark suit and ate his usual breakfast of fried eggs and toast. He thought about how this day was finally here. It would be a military funeral with honors. He’d attended a few before. He’d seen them in movies. But this was different.

This felt like the first time.

The hour drive from his home in Orange to Riverside was a quiet blur. At the cemetery, numbness took root as Staff Sgt. Zakia Webster walked toward him. She offered her condolences. She told him how she — along with Senior Airman Joseph Trujillo and Staff Sgt. Anahi Ledezma — would be conducting funeral honors.

Webster walked back to the white van and opened the door and looked at Trujillo and Ledezma.

“Let’s go,” Webster said.

Attention to detail

Ledezma had been battling illness for days and the cough just wouldn’t let up. What if while she lifted the bugle to her lips, she started hacking? She had promised to have a good breakfast this morning, but she only had two granola bars. What if she felt weak? Her uniform was crisp, her shoes were impossibly shiny and black. She practiced the slow move of raising the silver horn to her lips.

But as she did, the collar of her blue shirt irritated her throat. She wished she had brought some throat lozenges.

“I’m more nervous than I thought,” she said.

Trujillo had his big scare the night before.

He’d gone home and washed his white gloves for his first funeral service. The white gloves were critical. Master Sgt. Darryl Willingham had told them so during their training.

“The gloves are the only thing that can touch eternity and come back,” Willingham said.

Trujillo washed them, put them in the dryer to shrink them so they’d fit his hands. But when he pulled them out, they were streaked with dark lines. He panicked. He darted off to Men’s Warehouse to buy some new white gloves while his wife and his mother-in-law tried to fix them.

She rewashed them and used some bleach. It worked. The Men’s Warehouse gloves stayed behind.

Trujillo had pictured how the funeral would go. The slow steps with the casket would be at just the right cadence. The salute would be perfect. The flag fold would be just as Willingham had taught him. It would be handed to a loved one and stay folded that way forever.

He didn’t know who was being buried today other than the man’s name: Airman Roland Morgan. Trujillo had joined the honor guard to pay respects to his grandpa, who was buried in the same cemetery as the one Morgan would be buried in. Missing his grandfather’s funeral was a regret. He had allowed himself a quick thought about him when Webster drove the van through the gates of Riverside National Cemetery. But after that, Morgan and his family were the only things that mattered.

He got out of the van, checked his gloves and his hat in the tinted reflection of the van window. The ribbons and pins on his jacket exact to the honor guard’s dress code. He had measured them with a ruler.

Ledezma walked off to a far corner away from the shelter with rows of benches and near a row of volunteers with rifles who would fire the volleys. The flag-draped casket was slid out of the dark hearse. Trujillo and Webster stood stiff and saluted.

Final salutes

The family flinched as a succession of three rounds of volleys was fired.

Morgan started to tear up. Ledezma raised the bugle to her lips. The first notes of taps began to play. The sisters and their mother wept.

The 44-year-old thought about his father and how he loved to restore cars. He once rebuilt a Model T. Even as the cancer spread, he was still waxing his car up until a week before he died.

“He probably rebuilt more cars than all of us have ever owned in our lifetimes,” Kym Carmichael, Roland Morgan’s daughter, said. “He was a perfectionist. It appealed to him.”

Gerald Morgan thought about the family of Vietnamese refugees his father helped gain citizenship and settle in Southern California.

“One of them is a doctor now,” Morgan said. “They’re all still here.”

Trujillo knew none of this. His job wasn’t to mourn, but to provide honor and respect. He said that even during training, he’d clear his mind of everything but the task in front of him.

He started to fold the flag, each triangle bringing him a step closer to Webster holding the other end. It was harder to do wearing the gloves and the flag was starched, unlike the practice flags he’d been trained on.

Webster watched closely. So much depended on Trujillo’s fold. If the folds were long, it wouldn’t leave enough flag to tuck into the edge and make a crisp triangle. He’d have to unfurl it and refold. It’s one of the worst nightmares for an honor guard.

Webster remembered her first funeral. She had to do a refold.

“It was horrible,” she said. “Just horrible.”

Trujillo kept going.

Fold. Fold. Step.

Fold. Fold. Step.

Fold. Fold. Step.

His hands trembled slightly and, on the 11th fold, had to stop and adjust before continuing. The 13th fold was the end and Webster tucked the blue into the pocket created by the folds. She smoothed out the edges as Trujillo clutched it.

Away from the flag folding, Ledezma had quietly walked back to the van. With slow, deliberate, steps, it looked like she was right on cue.

‘I couldn’t stop coughing once I got into the van,” she said.

Webster took the flag after Trujillo presented it to her. She made the deliberate walk to the widow and said the words of thanks on behalf of a grateful nation. Bettina Morgan trembled as she held the flag.

Morgan teared up again. There was a final salute, and Webster and Trujillo left the family alone.

“This will stick with me forever,” Morgan said.

Trujillo would do three more funerals that week and, over the next three years, will do hundreds more.

But Tuesday was for Morgan. For grandpa. For all time.