Surrounded by the Capitol that make its very existence necessary, sits the most sacred landmark if this country. There is no monument or museum that can compare to the resting place of so many of our nations warriors. White tombstones dot the rolling hills that silently look over Washington DC like the first hour of snow on a cold winter day. The tombs of men who bear no other identity but American lay entombed at its epicenter. Guarded by the most disciplined group of soldiers america has to offer, every second of every day. You can feel the energy of hundreds of thousands of stories being told over generations in the solemn silence of these sacred grounds. Each life that was lived in service to this country marked by white granite or marble, proud and strong as these selfless men and women stood in life. There is no segregation of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or branch of service among those who rest peacefully there. There are just American servicemen and women peacefully showing in their death how we should live with the freedom they sacrificed so much for.
The six of us stood on the side section 60. It was the beginning of winter and the crisp cold air whipped around the open ground as we all kept loose and warm, bullshitting as we often did to keep our minds off the pressure of rendering final honors in the cemetery. Everything was shined to perfection, from the black gloss strap and bill of our ceremonial caps, every brass button, down to our dress shoes which you could see your reflection. We knew he was killed in Iraq. A young man cut down in the prime of his life. Finally it was time. Before I turned into the stone faced professional expected of you in the Old Guard I took a quick glimpse of the funeral proceedings. At the front was the hearse, followed by a limousine with his widow and closest family members, then a line of close to 100 cars all coming to watch this brave American laid to rest.
When all the mourners all gathered around hearse we began. The hearse door opened and in it was the casket draped with the american flag. Even though there were hundreds of people there was not a single sound except from the biting breeze lazily rustling the few leaves left on a single row of trees that lined the side of the section. We slowly marched over, the steel attached to the heel and toes of our dress shoes clicking in unison until we reached the back if the hearse took hold of his casket lifting him up as soldiers so often do for each other, for the very last time. Up closer, I could smell the faint scent of flowers that still clung to the fibers of the flag from the funeral home. We marched him in between the rows of his brothers headstones to where he would be laid to rest. I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit of relief in that fact. I pictured the ghosts of these men lining the walkway down the rows of headstones with big smiles on their face ready to welcome him home like a long-lost brother. To be there for him as he makes his transition to whatever comes after life on earth.
We set him down and lifted the flag off of his casket until it was flat and still and the service began. The chaplain spoke but I couldn’t help but get distracted by his next of kin, his wife. There she sat, with her head held high, shoulders squared, and tears streaming down her face uncontrollably. I was shocked by her response. She was clearly devastated, but she sat there with such dignity and pride that I was stunned by how strong she was in the face of this tragedy. A lump started to form in my throat and I quickly looked away and gathered my composure. So I stared straight ahead, Stone faced and listened to the people who spoke about this incredible man whom I never met. After all the remarks had been made everyone was asked to please stand for the military honors.
It started with a bagpipe playing amazing grace and the lump returned to my throat. We all stood there keeping the flag tight and I could feel the tension on the flag increasing with every note from that haunting bagpipe. The three with their backs to the families had their eyes closed, keeping their composure. Amist the people in the crowd there was not a single dry eye because they knew they were only minutes away from having to say goodbye for the last time. Tears started to well up and I could my lower eyelids began to feel heavy with the salty tears I was so desperately trying to hold back. I cannot begin to recount the obscenities I was screaming inside my head to keep it together. The firing party began the traditional 21 gun salute. Each of the seven soldiers firing their m14 in harmony so that all seven rounds came together in a large crack that echoed across the whole cemetery like the ripples when you throw a rock in a still lake. 1-2-3. During the 21 gun salute I was able to gain back my composure and conquer all rouge emotions of loss and grief I felt. I was there to render military honors and not take away from the people who mourned him. Taps began, played by a single bugle player, in its slow and haunting melody and our cue came to fold the flag to give to the next of kin. What I did not know was that the damage was done because when taps began to play I blinked. My eyelids, which had been filled to the brink before I composed myself, and dropped two small tears onto the flag. I carried on folding the flag without skipping a beat and hoped no one had noticed and felt terrible for my mistake.
The flag was presented along with a purple heart and a bronze star to his wife and we marched off back to the bus which brought us from funeral to funeral leaving the NCOIC to escort the next of kin to her vehicle after she said her final goodbyes. I told the other guys what had happened and felt a little better when they said they themselves were having a hard time. They reassured me that no one probably noticed. The Funeral director stopped by us a couple of hours later as we prepared to do another funeral and told us that the family wanted to thank us for the wonderful job we had done for the funeral. He asked if one of us had gotten a little misty. My heart dropped into my gut. I confessed and started to apologise when he cut me off and said that the mans wife was touched that I didn’t know him and still shared in the loss for him none the less. She had asked him to thank me. Well fuck. What do you say to that? I do know one thing..it was the last time it happened.
All of the funerals I have done in Arlington national cemetery were important to me but the ones from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hit especially close to home. It was like looking at an alternate ending for my life. What could have been. It always brought me back to the faces of the ones I knew who died overseas. Left me always with the single word question we all ask from time to time. Why? I will never forget my time honoring those soldiers and will always look back at that time with great pride. Seeing the cost of what we fight for is a gift that I treasure because I know that I have to keep doing my part to make sure I honor that price paid.