Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fallen Soldier: Highest Honor, Immeasurable Grief

A while back I gathered with some fellow Red Cross volunteers to "turn out" for a returning soldier killed in Afghanistan.  Like other civic groups, we are occasionally asked to be present at funeral processions and burials in order to show the grieving family the support of the community. 

This was the first such event I had attended.  I had just returned from a long day of teaching and a rigorous workout at the gym.  As I pulled together some semblance of dinner, I pushed the button on the answering machine and listened to a message from a Red Cross office worker asking if I could attend.  My first thought was:  "I'm too tired."

As I ate dinner and then started grading some tests, I felt a big more invigorated by the food.  My mind wandered back to the invitation ... the request.  It was still relatively early with there being about an hour and half before I had to leave if I were to attend.  My mind started pondering the request ...

"I'm too tired ..." sounded pretty shallow in light of the young man's sacrifice.

"You always say you support the troops ... is it just lip service?" I figured it was a simple enough of a request.  If a whole lot of individuals, who most likely had also just gotten home from work, took a brief moment to truly show support for the young soldier and his grieving family, what a showing that would be!

"Are you really that tired?"  Too tired to care?  The need and reward will be so much greater.

I called two other Red Cross volunteers to see if they happened to be going.  Luckily, both were.  So, we met up at a nearby location to carpool over to the funeral home and cemetery. 

The young man would be transported with special escort directly from the airport.  We wore our Red Cross attire.  We were amazed as we pulled up to the location ...

The fire district had two engines at the entrance to the cemetery, each facing the other with their ladders extended into the air.  A huge American flag was suspended from the engines' ladders.  Police cars encircled the engines with lights going.  The road was lined up and down with all kinds of people and groups: Boy Scouts and "regular folks" holding flags.

We Red Cross volunteers met at the funeral home.  We each received an American flag to hold and were deeply thanked by office managers for being there.  I saw men dressed in Scottish kilts, many VFW members, and Marines in their sharp dress uniforms. 

Our tiny group wound up standing right where all the action would be.  First, the young man was escorted to the funeral home in an old, classic pick-up truck, his flag-draped coffin highly visible from the rear.  It must have been an impressive and moving sight as it travelled along the highway escorted by motorcycle cops and limousines.

Before the family arrived, in the distance we heard an odd rumble.  Then, the cemetery grounds were flooded with at least 100 Patriot Guard Riders!  (Yeah -- I counted.)  We all breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that their presence would ward off any whackos that would dare protest the young man's funeral.

And, then, the family arrived.  Each member slowly climbed out of the limousine looking bewildered and distressed.  The family gathered together at the edge of the carport where the pick-up waited.  They were joined by a Scottish Honour Guard, the VFW, and the Marines.  In the precision only the military can muster, the Marines reverently pulled the casket from the pick-up's bed and marched it into the funeral home.  My eyes filled with tears as I thought: "What an awful thing this must be for a parent to experience!"  My heart ached for the mother and father.  Their young son's life snatched away so cruelly, so quickly, so violently ... far too soon.  "Lord, have mercy!" I prayed.

The respect that was displayed by all that night was heartfelt and, hopefully, healing.  As I looked around, I saw police officers standing at attention.  A young soldier dressed in fatigues stood alone at attention, seemingly to have appeared out of nowhere.  Some individuals dressed in civilian clothes stood at attention and saluted.  The Patriot Guard Riders stood along the road in respectful silence, their bikes' flags waving gently in the cool evening.

The coming days, weeks and months will be unspeakably hard for the family and friends.  "Lord, have mercy!" 

They will vaguely recall faces and pieces of conversations, but much will be a blurry dream ... a blurry nightmare. 

I do pray, however, that they will remember the words that lifted them up the most, the presence of dear friends and relatives who in vain tried to comfort them ... and maybe even the presence of strangers who, in rag-tag fashion, gathered to pay their respects to our community's soldier.

May God pour out His healing and peace, like a salve, upon these dear people.  "Lord, have mercy!"

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