Celebrating Memorial Day is not the right term to use for such a hallowed holiday. Being a veteran during the Cold War, I did not see battle, never drew a weapon to either defend or to defeat, and rarely saw death. However, there are three times in my career when I became inextricably linked to death of a fellow service member.
The first time was when I first came in the Air Force and they were looking for volunteers as pall bearers for an Air Force officer who had died recently in military jet mishap. They wanted officers and I put up my hand since I had never really been a part of anything like that in my past.
The day was bright in Southwest Texas and it was hot. We were in our “Class A’s” with white ascots and silver helmets, our black spit shined boots had white “ladder laced” laces. We all had white gloves, which would make it difficult to hang on to the casket pall, but none of us were complaining. The bus ride to the church was very quiet and after the bus stopped we immediately exited and lined up to do our duty. The captain in charge of the detail gave very specific but simple instructions before we departed the bus. First, we were not to smile nor make any attempt at levity, this man had died doing his duty and it was up to us to do ours with honor, respect, and dignity. Second, he had picked out the flag detail who would fold the flag and no one was to interfere with that. Third, we were at attention at all times and looked straight ahead, even when carrying the casket. If someone fell, they were to not hang on to the casket, but release it, get up and keep marching again with dignity.
After we escorted the casket to the hearse, we then continued on the bus ride to the cemetery. We exited the bus again and took our places at the rear of the hearse to accept the remains. I never realized how heavy a casket was until that moment. We were on uneven ground and were allowed to use both hands, which we all did. We carried the remains toward the burial plot and I suddenly realized that there was no ground underneath my one foot. I started to go forward, but for some reason (to this day I really believe it was the hand of the dead airman) I immediately caught myself and continued on the way to the grave site. The ceremony went without a hitch, although I have to admit that it took everything I had not to start crying as the flag was passed to the widow. The hero’s children were asking their mother when daddy would be coming to see this and that made it even harder, but all of us treated the occasion with honor, dignity, and respect. The fly over for the ceremony took place (although I heard it but did not see it) and we marched back to the bus and headed home, again very silent. That was 40 years ago and I still remember it as it was yesterday.
The second time that I came face-to-face with death of a fellow service member was when I was appointed a Summary Court Officer for an airman was killed in an accident. It was my job to identify the body at the site of the accident, escort it to the mortuary and ensure it was treated with respect (this was in a foreign country and they may not understand the importance of this procedure), prepare the effects of the airman and ship them to the family. I basically was this airman and ensuring that his personal effects were shipped home. The duty lasted approximately 3 months and again it was almost 40 years ago. The airman had a child who would be over 40 now. Some things you just cannot forget.
The final time that I would encounter death was toward the end of my career when I was selected for death notification. This was about 1 hour away from my home and I was briefed that the individual died on duty as a result of an accident. I would not have a pastor or priest or any religious representative, but was to go alone to the home and notify the widow. I was told that I would be the first to notify her. I drove along very windy country roads until I found the town and the address. I checked my uniform one more time, took a few deep breaths, and made my way to the front door. I saw the widow sitting there with her face in her hands, giving me realization that I might not be the first person to notify her of the death. She made her way to the front door and opened it. I stepped in, took off my cover, and said the words I had been practicing since I started the drive. (All names are fictitious)
“Mrs Smith, I regret to inform you that your husband, Sgt Smith, was killed while doing his duty in Europe. On behalf of myself and the United States Air Force, you have our sympathies.”
I then found out the unthinkable. She had already been called by relatives who had already been notified that her husband had died. She was almost inconsolable. I sat with her for about an hour until I felt she was calm enough to make a phone call to have someone sit with her, which she did. The whole situation took about 3 hours, but it seemed shorter than that. I just wanted her to know that she would have others that cared about her and her husband. I left and went home and hugged my wife and kissed my children.
Celebrate Memorial Day? Not likely. The closest word that describes what we do on Memorial Day is commemorating it. We must remember the hundreds of thousands that have died to make this country free. We must remember that each one had families, futures, and friends that will no longer know the very essence of that person. A phrase on a headstone of a young soldier that died near Monte Cassino, Italy says it best:
“Those that live in the hearts of the ones they love, will never die.”
A thoughtful Memorial Day to all.
Learn, Offer, Value, Educate (LOVE)