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How did it feel to help carry former President George H.W. Bush's casket into the Capitol? Ask this Marine from Tampa Bay

Marine Cpl. Kevin Harris, at the front of the casket on the left side of this photo, joins other service members of a military team to carry the casket of former President George H.W. Bush into the Capitol in Washington on Dec. 3. 2018. (Shawn Thew/Pool Photo via AP)
Published Dec. 5, 2018

Marine Cpl. Kevin Harris felt the weight of history on Monday as he helped pull the flag-draped casket out of the gleaming black hearse.

"Wow," the 24-year-old New Port Richey native recalled thinking at that moment. "This is the 41st president of the United States."

Harris was one of eight U.S. military service members who carried former President George H.W. Bush's casket into the U.S. Capitol. Bush, who died Friday at age 94, was set to lie in state at the Capitol until 10 a.m. Wednesday, when Harris and his counterparts will lift his casket again and carry it lockstep back to the hearse.

"It was a pretty humbling opportunity and feeling to have," Harris told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. "I never thought in my life that I'd be put in that situation."

Harris is part of the Marine Corps Body Bearers, an eight-person unit tasked with carrying the caskets of Marines and their family members who are buried in the Washington, D.C., area.

The unit also serves senior statesmen, heads of state and former presidents. Bearers from other branches joined Harris and another Marine on Monday for Bush's ceremony.

Harris said he and his fellow Marines often take part in several funerals a day. Most of them don't draw the attention of the entire nation.

But he couldn't worry about that pressure.

"You can't let anything affect you because it's not about your pain," he said. "You're doing that service for the members of the family ... It's the least we can do to honor them in the best way possible before we let them down one last time."

That meant locking in, staring straight and breathing only through his nose.

He and the other bearers also had to withstand the physical strain of carrying the several-hundred-pound casket from the hearse, up the Capitol steps and into the building's rotunda — all with one arm each.

To build up that endurance, Marine bearers train underground in the solemn bottom level of a parking garage, Harris said. They practice hauling every kind of casket imaginable and grind through workouts.

The caskets they carry typically weigh between 400 and 800 pounds, said Harris, who was selected by the Corps to start training with the unit in 2016, a year after joining the Marines.

At funerals, composed bearers give onlooking relatives a sense of dignity, he said.

"We're that last representation of something their family member was a part of," he said, "something they probably loved a lot."

The presidential ceremony was different than most, of course. But Harris approached it like any other, he said. If he had started thinking about all the people watching — like former President George W. Bush, whom Harris passed by inches — he might've messed up.

He didn't, and from Florida, his parents watched with pride.

"My wife and I were crying, watching him on TV," said his father, 55-year-old Mike Harris, a retired New York City police officer. "It's a monumental event, and our son is there."

The younger Harris graduated from River Ridge High School in 2013, where he played football and hockey. He has always been a leader, his father said.

Harris was looking forward to helping carry the president back to the hearse Wednesday morning for the drive to the National Cathedral for his state funeral.

"Just doing it right. Just making sure I execute it perfectly for President Bush and his family," he said.

Someday, he hopes a few Marines will do the same for him.

Contact Justin Trombly at jtrombly@tampabay.com. Follow @JustinTrombly.

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