Sunday, July 4, 2010

Arlington

It's been exactly one month to the day since our family traveled to Arlington, Virginia, to inter the ashes of my father-in-law, John Kelley, at Arlington National Cemetery.

John was Captain of all the Marines on the U.S.S Missouri in the Pacific Theater of WWII. He was in Tokyo Harbor when the peace treaty was signed by the Japanese on the deck of the Missouri, though he was on land that day securing the harbor and missed the ceremony. After the war, he moved his wife and daughter to Minnesota and began working in the family insurance business.

John and his wife had the awful, horrible misfortune of losing three of their daughters, all at separate times. The first daughter died while John was serving active duty, and she was buried at Arlington. The other two are buried there as well. We went to bring John's remains to rest next to his three daughters.

I'm writing about this on the Fourth of July because a funeral with full military honors conducted at Arlington National Cemetery is truly a thing to behold, a true testament to love of our country and the honor it is to serve her. This is the day we celebrate our Independence, and without people like John Kelley, we might not be celebrating at all. When one is at Arlington and beholds the vista of grave after grave covering rolling green hills as far as the eye can see, it drives home the enormity of the sacrifice our service men and women have given and the insoluble link between what they gave and the freedom we enjoy today in the United States of America.

There was a very large turnout for John's interment. Many of us came from Minnesota, and there was a large contingent of east-coast relatives. A granddaughter and her boyfriend came from Thailand for the service. A grandson came from Colorado with his wife and new daughter, born two days before John passed away.

On the day of the interment, we all gathered in a meeting room in a large marble-floored building to mingle with one another and talk about John. His widow was taken to another room to meet with the officiant for the service. On the tables peppered throughout the family reception room were photo albums of the cemetery--a view of things that would take hours to see in person.

Then we gathered for the procession to the grave site. We were in ours cars and drove up behind a horse-drawn caisson carrying a coffin draped in the U.S. flag with with a number of Honor Guard servicemen. Two of the Honor Guard, with precision and care that one would use if he were carrying a box containing the most important substance on earth, transferred the box of John's ashes to the larger flag-draped coffin being carried by the caisson. There was a small door in the back of the coffin, which they opened to place John's ashes inside.

This was when one of the most moving things occurred, at least in my opinion. From our car, we could see that as we drove through the winding roads to the grave site, there were people obviously dressed as tourists who stopped, stood at attention, took off their hats if they had them, and put their hands over their hearts. They had no idea who John Kelley was, but they gave him the respect he deserved because they knew by the trappings of the service that John had served his country. In what capacity these tourists didn't know, but they honored him anyway. I found that touching beyond words, and I'll always remember looking out of my backseat window and seeing these people stopped and standing at attention in respect for John. It gave me hope for America's future to see these civilians being so respectful. To be honest, the entire service gave me hope.

The grave site is also the grave site of John's three daughters. Their headstones were there. I had never seen them before; my son, on a choir trip to D.C., had very kindly been allowed to find his aunts' graves, on which he placed a guitar pick to let them know he had been there.

We gathered around the grave site, and there were about 15 chairs in three rows. The widow, John's brother and some of John's children sat in the front row, and I sat in the second row because of my walking and standing difficulties. Everyone else stood behind and around the chairs.

The service was officiated by a military pastor dressed in white. He was perfect in content and tone, and made us all feel proud of the man we called father, husband, grandfather, brother, and great-grandfather. We prayed and sang "Amazing Grace." Then came the military rituals.

I don't recall in which order they were done, but I do recall every one of them very well. The 21-gun salute, with gun shots so loud it was kind of startling. I've never been around guns much in my life, and I was surprised at how loud they are in person. The servicemen with the guns were somewhat away from us, on a gradually sloping hill. Then there was "Taps." If you can go to a military funeral without crying, you will only make it until "Taps." The trumpet, played by a serviceman on another hill, was so haunting and quiet and alone. It is the military equivalent of bagpipes at an Irish funeral. It's impossible to have a dry eye.

Then came two parts I will never forget. The folding of the flag, during which six Honor Guard officers meticulously, with every move practiced to a science, folded the flag that had draped John's casket, into a perfect triangle. I cannot explain how regimented and controlled their movements were as they folded the flag with the utmost care. A neighbor sent me an e-mail the other day containing the meaning behind the 13 traditional folds made in the American flag. I think it is important for us to know that every fold can have deep meaning. I urge you to take a moment to look at this link to help you understand that, though there are no "official" flag-folding symbols, everything done at this kind of military funeral has meaning behind it.

Then, one of the Honor Guard took the flag, got down on one knee in front of John's widow, and presented it to her. He removed his pristine white glove and shook her hand, and told her how it represents the country's thanks for his service. Another Honor Guard member approached her, got down on one knee and presented her with a pouch containing the spent shells from the gun salute. He removed his white glove and shook her hand. Then came the last Honor Guard member, who got down on his knee, removed his glove, and took her hand while he thanked her for her service to our country, by being a military wife and raising children alone for a while (John didn't see his daughter, Tina, until she was six months old) and all the other sacrifices a military wife makes.

What struck me most about these three young men--beautiful in their military dress uniforms, with rows of medals across their chests--was their eyes. I was sitting directly behind John's widow, so I saw how each man looked into her eyes as he spoke to her. Sincerity and reverence were just glowing from their eyes as they spoke to her, and I truly believed that it was an honor for them to be participating in the interment of the remains of a WWII Marine Captain. Sadly, we are losing our WWII heroes at a very fast pace now. The "greatest generation" is dwindling.

I came away from the service with this thought: Sometimes it seems, especially as a conservative blogger and columnist, that the country is extremely divided, and it is in danger of being lost. While those things still exist and are absolutely true, being at the service made me also believe we are still a great country, and there is still respect, honor and sacrifice going on for her sake. We are still steeped in tradition, ritual and reverence in honor of those who fought for liberty.

My daughter commented that it was awe inspiring to see all the people who were lost fighting for our liberty. I told her this: They were not lost. Their lives were given. For the most part, these fighting men and women give their lives--they don't lose them--for freedom. It is a gift they have given to our country, the ultimate sacrifice.

And they are not lost today. We carry these individuals in our hearts and our memories, and they will live on forever; in John's case, as a member of America's greatest generation. He will never be forgotten.


3 comments:

kermieshel said...

I teared up reading this, as I have been to some military funerals. The greatest sacrifice is giving ones life for their country. All military are heroes. God Bless your father in law John for his service to our country and God Bless our current military in harms way fighting for our very freedom. GOD BLESS THE USA!

Kari Lyn said...

I just found your blog through your post on Right Network's Facebook page. Loved this blog. You are right about military funeral's. It is impossible to keep a dry eye...especially once Taps begins. I'm thankful for your father-in-law's service. I hope you and the family are doing well. We just dropped our 18 year old off for boot camp on Wednesday. God bless all of our military during a time when we have a president who is questionable, to say the very least!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Chrystal, that was beautiful. I am from a family with long line of military members. I love this country and my heart breaks at what is happening from within. Thank goodness we have our military men and women who do not hesitate to "give" their life for our freedom. I will never again speak about a soldier losing his/her life, they gave the ultimate they knew exactly what the cost was, they did not lose their life they laid it down for their country.