Chris Jones has written a moving and long piece for Esquire with a simple premise: What happens to the body of a soldier who dies in Iraq?

Jones tells the story in reverse, going from Sgt. Joe Montgomery’s burial to his death in Baghdad. Sgt. Montgomery was an average soldier. He had no special family background, was not his town’s favorite son. But he did distinguish himself with his initiative as a soldier. It is the very ordinary quality of the soldier that makes this story so gripping and fresh.
The reader meets the pallbearers, pilots, and soldiers who care for the body. The details of their work are overwhelming:

Karen Giles tells a story about another young airman, who was polishing the brass on a dead soldier’s uniform jacket. He was using a little tool, a kind of buffer, to make sure that every button shined. A visitor complimented him on his attention to detail. “The family will really appreciate what you’re doing,” the visitor said. But the airman replied, “Oh, no, sir, the family won’t know about this.” The airman told him that the family had requested that their son be cremated, and just a short while later, he was.

More excerpts below.

Jones writes about the parade of people from Scott County, Indiana who came to the funeral service. Many of them didn’t know Sgt. Montgomery.

Looking at the faces of Joey’s family, they could know that he was loved. Looking at his friends in their black concert T-shirts, they could guess that he really liked Nine Inch Nails. Looking at his Aunt Vicki, standing behind the pulpit and holding it together just long enough to read one of Joey’s poems, they could learn that he liked to write. Looking at his flag-draped casket, they could be certain that he was a soldier. Looking at General Pinckney, giving Missie both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star and promoting Sergeant Montgomery posthumously to staff sergeant, they could deduce that he was a brave one. They may have believed that he became a soldier because he had loved his country, but they could not have known that before he was a soldier he had been ashamed that his jobs in the steel forge and running cable for security systems had left his young family living in a bad part of town in a rented house with holes in the floor. They couldn’t have known that he became a soldier because he wanted to make his older brother proud, and that he wanted even more to make a better life for his wife and his kids, this second generation of fatherless Montgomerys.

This small portrait of the honor guard that delivered Sgt. Montgomery’s body to his family stands out.

The guardsmen had carried enough caskets to deduce, from what their arms told them as they grasped the handles and lifted, something of the person inside. They know if the dead soldier was big or little, and they can also make a good guess at how he died, whether he was killed by small-arms fire or a helicopter crash or an IED. Sometimes they’d lifted caskets and been surprised by the weight of them — wooden caskets are heavier than metal, and that combined with a strapping young man can make for a considerable burden, several hundred pounds — and sometimes there was barely any weight at all, and they knew that inside the casket was a pressed uniform carefully pinned to layers of sheets and blankets, between which might be nestled only fragments of a former life, sealed in plastic.

They had also learned how not to betray a hint of this sudden knowledge. Sergeant Montgomery’s casket was lighter than they were expecting, but they kept what they call their “game faces.” They’d learned to train their eyes on one place, focusing usually on a point in the distance, the way sailors settle their stomachs by looking at the horizon.

I recommend buying the print issue (or printing out the entire story) and giving it a full read in the evening. Jones’ achievement is to treat all of these characters with the same respect in the small details of their work and their grief that they show to a soldier’s body and uniform, and to his family. Easily one of the most gripping pieces of journalism I’ve encountered this year.