We often hear of those who give their lives for our country. Less frequently do we catch a glimpse of the ones who are left behind to mourn for them. I worked at the Navy Annex in Washington, DC for almost a year. Although the building is adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, I never attended a funeral there or even thought about the services except when I was outside and happened to hear a gun salute. They take their toll on the members of the U.S. Armed Forces who perform dozens of funerals daily, not to mention the grieving loved ones. One of the midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy shared with me the following, first-person account of a funeral he participated in at Arlington. Have your Kleenex ready!
We finally arrive at the site, place the casket down, and wipe off as much rain as we can from the ensign as we prepare to start its final folding. Three volleys are shot off in the horizon and their echo lingers in the background as a solemn rendition of taps is played through the apologetic crying of God through the clouds. The folding commences and I run through the remorseful speech in my head as the time to hand off the flag draws near. I reach the final fold, and I can barely see my white gloves as the rain pummels my face at the head of the casket. I take a breath and compose myself in preparation for the speech I have rehearsed, praying that I can execute it perfectly.
I turn around and to my surprise there was not a married woman awaiting me, nor a sad sibling facing the loss of their bloodline. No, it was not as simple as that. There stood this man’s daughter, waist high, gripping an action figure that resembled the life her father once lived. I dropped to one knee and held the ensign, dripping wet at the little woman’s chest. I proceeded with my speech and watched as she gazed at her father’s casket being lowered, dumfounded that he wouldn’t be there to simply tuck her in at night. As I neared the end of the speech she yelled out for her father and jumped at me crying tears of sheer pain. I held her tight and told her it was going to be ok as the rain surrounded us in the puddle just to the right of her father’s casket. As I held her, I glanced at the small crowd gathered for his reception and quickly realized that he was all she had, that the rest in attendance were his men from his ship. I swallowed hard as I tried not to choke up, and I knew I had to be strong for the little woman as she was about to embark on a life I dare not imagine. I handed her to one of the fellow sailors in attendance, and formed up alongside my brothers for the march off to the next funeral, leaving with her a piece of my heart and soul. Thus was the start of my day that early spring morning.