Slow measured steps in unison, the repeated crack of rifles in a 21-gun salute, the echo of “Taps,” and white-gloved hands painstakingly folding the flag with 13 precise folds and handing it to a grieving family “on behalf of ... a grateful nation.”
Sergeant First Class, retired, Richard Dresback, originally from Winterset and now living in Creston, has been on both sides of the familiar military funeral traditions. His father, Dean Dresback, was buried with military honors in 2016 and he has participated in the funerals of many soldiers and veterans during his career and since he retired. He also has volunteered to place flags on graves and march in parades with the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Creston and American Legion in Winterset.
Dresback spent 21 years in the Army with an additional three years as a reservist. He explained that Memorial Day has a broader meaning for the public today, placing flowers on the graves of loved ones, a government holiday, barbeques, the start of summer. But the true meaning of Memorial day salutes those who died on active duty in the service of their country.
Originally known as Decoration Day after the Civil War, the first large-scale observance was May 30, 1868 and included a ceremony with a proclamation by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a speech by General James Garfield and the decoration of more than 20,000 graves of Union and Confederate soldiers alike at Arlington National Cemetery.
“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue,” Garfield said in his speech.
After World War I, Decoration Day evolved into a remembrance those lost in all wars and became known as Memorial Day. In 1971, Memorial Day was proclaimed a federal holiday with the date changed to the last Monday in May through the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
For Dresback, the true meaning of Memorial Day brings to mind the funerals he participated in. At his father’s funeral, he remembers sitting beside his mother and watching her receive the flag.
While Dresback was stationed at Gowen Field in Idaho, his duties included flag bearing and gun salutes at military funerals. Some of those occasions stand out in his mind. Six members of his unit were killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom and brought back to be buried. He was involved in three of their funerals.
“It’s a very somber feeling to watch this whole thing and be involved in it,” he said. “I didn’t know these guys real well. I knew who they were ... The more you know about an individual the tougher it gets.”
Training included many repetitions of the service with all aspects that were involved, from those bearing the casket all the way to the folding of the flag. Dresback said for each funeral, they practiced 12 to 15 times.
“It took a lot of time and training. You didn’t just go out there when the bodies got back, you actually prepared for this for about a month or better beforehand. ... So that you were properly trained.”
Every aspect of the funeral is methodical and dignified.
“Your motions are ... drawn out. It’s slow and with respect,” he said.
Now that he is retired, it is not as “formal.”
“They give us a little bit of slack,” he said. “In your own mind, though, you don’t want to mess up.”
Military service is a tradition in Dresback’s family. His father was in the Army during the Korean War and also served in the National Guard totaling 18 years and his two sons Richard “Craig” and Brian both served. Craig served two tours with the 1st Cavalry “in the desert” in between Desert Storm and Bosnia. Brian spent 10 years in the Army Reserves and 10 months in Afghanistan as a combat medic.
The military feels like a family to Dresback as well.
“You’re still part of that brotherhood of being a family inside a family,” he said. “You see one military guy and you’re automatically that kind of brotherhood that you can depend on each other ... like a fraternity. You just take care of each other and you have each other’s backs.”