BY JONATHAN VALANIA If you are the parent or spouse of a U.S. serviceman, Sgt. Anthony Dekanich is the last person you want knocking on your door. When Sgt. Dekanich pays a visit, it means only one thing: Your son or daughter or husband or wife is dead. Vested with the unenviable duty of notifying next of kin–or NOK–that their son or daughter has been killed in action and arranging their burial with full military honors, Sgt. Dekanich is responsible for seeing that spouses or parents get a properly folded American flag and that the dead get a little “Taps” and sympathy.
When Sgt. Dekanich draws death notification duty, he brings along a chaplain and alerts the local police department, which in turn makes sure that an EMT crew is on standby because most of these “missions,” as he calls them, trigger hysteria. Violent tears and anguish are par for the course, fainting is not uncommon, and heart attacks or strokes are always in the realm of possibility. Every time he knocks on a door with news of a soldier who’s died in active duty, his first words are always the same: “On behalf of the secretary of defense of the United States of America, I regret to inform you that … ”
It’s a rainy, wind-whipped Wednesday morning and Sgt. Dekanich is standing before an open grave at St. John Neumann Cemetery in Warrington, carrying out the first of six such missions he has scheduled for today.
Across a vast, grassy expanse of headstones, tiny American flags ripple as far as the eye can see. The funeral procession makes its way through the cemetery’s wrought iron gates. Trailing a hearse, it slowly motors up to the gravesite. The funeral party disembarks. A weeping middle-aged widow and two daughters, along with assorted family and friends and a pair of priests, all dressed in black, take their places beneath the canopy.
The man Sgt. Dekanich is burying is not an Iraqi war vet, but a former enlisted man who served his country and was discharged honorably. The priest recites the final blessing. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And on cue, from behind the graveside tent, one of Sgt. Dekanich’s men hits “play” on a boom box and out comes the mournful, muted blare of a trumpet playing “Taps.”
“There are no buglers in the Army anymore,” says Sgt. Dekanich, who, if you mangle the pronunciation of his name enough times, will patiently point out that it rhymes with “truck in a ditch.”
Fortunately, it’s not too cold today. When the temperature dips below 40 degrees, the boom box often freezes up, and Sgt. Dekanich has to apologize. Sgt. Dekanich hates to have to apologize when everybody is sorry enough already.
As “Taps” fades out, two of Dekanich’s men–dressed in crisply pressed olive drab, brass buttons and stripes, high-shined shoes, stylishly angled berets and snow white gloves–approach opposite sides of the flag-draped casket. They pick up the flag and fold it in half lengthwise and then in half again. One soldier holds his end firmly, allowing no slack, and stands at attention while the other folds a corner over and then over and over again, converting Old Glory into a triangular origami of stars and stripes. One of the soldiers stands at attention, holding the folded flag in his upturned white-gloved palms, while the other salutes it. The flag is then presented to the widow.
“Please accept this flag on behalf of the president of the United States of America,” he says, pressing the flag into her trembling hands.
Like so many missions in the military, Sgt. Dekanich’s is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Like so many jobs in the military, Sgt. Dekanich didn’t ask for it. He was “volunteered” by his commanding officer. In the military you do as you are told. It’s called duty, and carrying out your duty is the path to honor, the holy grail of military life.
At 57, Sgt. Dekanich has only three more years until retirement. “More and more, I find myself burying guys that are younger than me,” he says later. Sgt. Dekanich never married, but he recently reunited with his high school sweetheart. They went to the junior prom together and then he enlisted. She married another man, had kids and got divorced. They met up again at their 35th high school reunion and discovered the spark was still there after all these years.
Like many career military men, Sgt. Dekanich never planned to be a lifer. It just happened.
He enlisted in 1970 because he felt guilty when his childhood buddy–the guy he walked to school with every day–was killed in Vietnam. The Army decided Dekanich–who was smart and good with gadgets–would make a great radio man, which was both a compliment and a curse.
It was well known among the new recruits back then that radio men were the primary targets of Vietcong snipers looking to sow chaos and cut off any call for reinforcements once a jungle ambush was underway. After basic training, his unit was set to ship off to Vietnam, but Dekanich came down with a bad case of the flu and was instead sent to Germany after he recovered.
After serving his tour of duty, Sgt. Dekanich spent the next 13 years working in the private sector as a computer systems analyst until the company he worked for folded. He then reenlisted in the reserves in 1985, and in the mid-’90s he spent four years doing communications work at the Pentagon. His office was located in the outermost ring of the Pentagon, at almost the exact spot where the plane slammed nose-first on Sept. 11. “It’s a good thing I got out of there or I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” he says.
Sgt. Dekanich has been burying the dead with honors and notifying NOK for four years. Friends have told him that in the Navy funeral officers get rotated out of the job after a year to avoid burnout. But for Dekanich, the work keeps piling up.
In 1999 Congress passed a law requiring that all honorably discharged vets receive a burial with full military honors. That year he averaged three missions a week. Now he’s up to 140 a month, as succeeding generations of vets reach the age of death-by-natural-causes and the nation finds itself in a constant state of war.
There are the givens that go with the job: Catholic services start late and end early. Baptists start early and go late.
He’s on a first-name basis with most funeral directors in the Philadelphia area. “If you asked me to meet you somewhere, I can probably figure out where it is by the nearest cemetery,” he says.
And then there are things about the job that are completely unexpected. Over the course of his funeral duty, Sgt. Dekanich has seen things he can’t really explain. Like the time he went to notify a NOK, knocked on the door and a dog barked loudly on the other side, but nobody answered.
He went next door to see if the neighbors knew the whereabouts of the NOK. “The guy said, ‘You know, I’ve sort of lost touch with them. I used to know the family better back when I would take care of their dog, but that dog died years ago,'” says Sgt. Dekanich cryptically.
Standing next to Sgt. Dekanich is his partner in grief, Maj. Martin Jones. At 45, Maj. Jones has 23 years under his belt. As Army jobs go, he says, this one sure beats paratrooping, recalling how he once spent eight hours hung up in a tree during training.
Both men feel uniquely qualified for their funeral honors jobs. Both were the first to discover the bodies of deceased parents. One day Maj. Jones went over to his dad’s house, and when he got there, his father’s lips were blue but his body was still warm. Looking back, he’s not sure why, but he tried to revive him by slapping him across the face. “I’ll never forget the feeling of his 5 o’clock shadow on my hand,” he says.
Both men are unrelentingly upbeat in the face of their grim day jobs. They have to be. Whistling past the graveyard is a matter of self-preservation. The key to not letting the job get to you is to not get too involved emotionally. “If your mind happens to stray, you get involved,” says Sgt. Dekanich. “You just try to stay focused. I hate when there’s a lot of crying, because that makes me cry.” MORE
THE FLAMING LIPS: Taps