Marines don't smile.

It's strength they want to show now, as they stand in this field of white marble markers. Strength for Cpl. Jordan Pierson. Strength for his family. Utterly unruffled.

So they watch without expression as their friend's casket is prepared for the grave. They stand, their mirror-polished shoes on Arlington National Cemetery grass, the brass buttons on their dress blues shining, each face a solemn mask. The way they were taught.

``Marines don't smile,'' one of the Marines from Charlie Company had said that morning at the hotel.

Not that there's any cause to smile here, in one of the country's most somber places, where markers bearing the names of the latest conflicts have filled new swaths of land in the five years since 9/11. The Marines stand behind a crowd from Connecticut and greet the rifle volleys with stoic faces. They don't flinch at the 24 notes of taps, which wrench a fresh round of sobs from Pierson's friends and family.

Most of the Marines in the group volunteered to drive more than 300 miles for this hourlong ceremony. They didn't have to be here. But it was an easy choice. Of course they want to see this to the end. Pierson deserves it.

So, these Marine reservists from the Plainville-based unit -- most of them kept back from the company's deployment to Iraq for medical reasons -- stand as symbols and reminders for Pierson's people. This is what Pierson was, their quiet presence shouts. He was part of something serious and had won a place in a fraternity that makes a try at transcending death.

The Marines, who don't smile.

But of course, they do.

The day before, on Tuesday, a corporal and three lance corporals climb into a borrowed military van: Cpl. Terry Hanechak, 25, from West Springfield; Lance Cpl. Roberto Diaz, 22, from New Britain; Lance Cpl. James Serafino, 22, from Stamford; and Lance Cpl. Gregory Duplessie, 25, from Thomaston.

Except for fresh haircuts, tight to their scalps, they look like any other young men, in T-shirts and shorts or jeans, earrings glinting in Diaz's ears. They adjust the stereo to find a compromise: classic rock, while Diaz plugs into the hip-hop on his laptop. They are young guys going on a trip. And in each other's easy company, they smile.

These four are some of the Charlie Company Marines in a strange limbo. They were called for war and ready to serve. But Hanechak's eardrum blew from an infection. Diaz's knee gave out. Duplessie suffered recurring bouts of tonsillitis. Serafino had a herniated disk in his back.

None of these is a grave illness, but each was enough to keep the Marine from getting medical clearance to go to Fallujah with the unit.

So they've watched from afar. They've seen friends come home in caskets. They feel guilty about not being over there with their comrades, exorcising the demons of 9/11. And they are anxious to do whatever they can on this end. So they are driving south through the Atlantic states, every mile taking them closer to the remains of the young corporal shot to death in Fallujah and about to be buried with military honors.

The gravity of their mission doesn't muffle them. They talk and laugh about girls and cars. The van is a stage for the rehashing of exploits, from military training exercises to nocturnal adventures.

Delaware becomes Maryland, then D.C., and finally the van is passing the vast Pentagon and the green of Arlington National Cemetery, beside which the four Marines find their hotel and join others from Charlie Company who have made the trip. Through the windows of the hotel, they can see distant fields of the cemetery, salted with marble.

As evening comes, the Marines descend on Washington, testing the engine of a rented Cadillac and moving wherever the night pulls them.

At the first stop, it's a round of whiskeys. ``To Pierson.''

Duplessie, Diaz and Serafino stop at a nightclub, but the bouncers won't let Duplessie in because he's wearing shorts. He doesn't want to hold his buddies back, so he spends $100 buying the pants off a guy outside. The two swap pants for shorts in the street.