People attending an ANC funeral often flinch when the military firing party fires its first volley. That’s what happened at the funeral service for U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Brendan P. O’Donnell on October 14, 2022. By the second and third volleys, O’Donnell’s family and friends were more prepared.
The firing of three-rifle volleys at a military funeral service originates from the old custom of halting combat to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. Today, the military service branches fire the volleys to pay respect to the fallen.
The Marines headquartered at the Marine Barracks at Eighth and I Streets in southwest Washington, D.C., have two firing parties for funerals: A Team and B Team, both from Bravo Company, Headquarters Battalion. Each team includes a minimum of 12 Marines: a noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC), seven riflemen and alternates. All volunteer for this duty.
The two teams train twice a week for about two hours, using World War II-era M1 Garand rifles. (The USMC is the only service to use these particular rifles.) They line up and go through the proper motions. Once satisfied with the drill, the NCOIC brings the Marines into a “click” circle, pulling the triggers on their empty rifles to make sure — as NCOIC Cpl. Kiril Harding explained — that “all the clicks are on the same page.” They continue the practice until they reach three perfectly synchronized clicks in a row. They then practice shooting with blank shots. Once a month, the two teams are evaluated on timing, drill and synchronized firing. The most proficient team performs funeral services for a month. At ANC, a team will perform anywhere from 10 funeral services a month to 17 a week.
Firing party members describe their participation in ANC funerals as an honor. “It gets pretty emotional,” said Cpl. Harding. Lance Cpl. Benjamin Baker stated that he likes the personal aspect of the job. “It’s kind of like our last goodbye,” he said.
A few funerals stand out to the NCOIC Marines. Cpl. Harding remembered the ANC funeral service for Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, who died in Kabul, Afghanistan, from a bomb attack during the American withdrawal in the summer of 2021. More than 300 people attended the funeral. “We had one shot to represent the Corps and send him off in a good way,” said Harding. “Lots of pressure, but the boys performed flawlessly.”
Lance Cpl. Baker remembers the smaller funerals for enlisted Marines. “You can see that there’s people there that care about this person,” he said. “There doesn’t have to be a lot of people to show that we’re putting in good work for somebody.”
At Maj. O’Donnell’s funeral, the firing team lined up about 30 yards from the burial ceremony, their pristine white trousers silhouetted by the afternoon sun. After the Navy chaplain’s prayer, Marine Cpl. Kyle Schnellbacher, the team’s NCOIC, gave the order “ready, aim, fire,” in a clear, respectful voice. On cue, the Marines, with their rifles pointed at a 45-degree angle, fired into the air. The seven shots rang out as one. He gave the order again, and again the shots cracked as one. The third volley was as crisp as the previous two.
As the Marine body bearers carefully folded the flag above Maj. O’Donnell’s urn, Cpl. Schnellbacher walked slowly and deliberately in front of the team and picked up the spent shell casing, placing them in the black pouch. Once he had gathered all the casings, he walked behind the chaplain and handed the pouch to a Marine master sergeant, who presented it to Maj. O’Donnell’s wife.
When the funeral ended, the Marine firing party shouldered their weapons, made a sharp right face and marched silently from the scene.