Honoring Our Heritage: A Tribute to Veterans
Article submitted by Arnie Snyder, owner of Elder Life Advisors, Littleton, Colorado.
On a gentle April afternoon, I join the friends and family of an Air Force veteran to honor his memory. Loved ones gather round a small shelter in the military cemetery, eyes drawn to the brass urn set on a low table. Acres of gray-white tombstones punctuate the bright green, neatly mowed lawns. Arrayed in silent formation, symbols of the dead surround the living.
A near-dozen, mostly World War II veterans will officiate the ceremony on this sunny spring day at Fort Logan National Cemetery. Nearly all are in their 80’s. Dressed in clean, freshly ironed uniforms, they represent the several branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. The rite is time-worn and familiar to each -- a commander, chaplain, two color guards, and a firing team. One will double as the bugler.
Under Public Law 106-65, every eligible veteran may receive a military funeral honors ceremony at the family’s request. The program is aptly titled, "Honoring Those Who Served.” Thousands of veterans have been honored in this way, as will thousands more. Each ceremony includes playing of Taps and a personal presentation of the U.S. burial flag.
As this ceremony begins, the firing detail leader orders his team to attention and to present arms. The rest of the entourage take up solemn positions inside the shelter. “We are assembled here to pay a lasting tribute to our departed comrade,” intones the commander. As he and the chaplain each speak in turn, the service is personalized to the Korean War veteran, who passed away at age 77.
When the verbal tribute is finished, the firing team leader readies his soldiers. The sharp report of rifle fire disturbs the stillness of the cemetery. The men fire another volley, then a third. Mourners gaze at the American flag inside the shelter as the strains of Taps fill the melancholy air.
Unfolding and refolding the American flag is another well-practiced ceremony, performed by two officials. Into the folded flag are pressed three empty shell casings, representing Duty, Honor and Country.
The commander grasps the triangle of cloth, fixes his eyes firmly on the veteran’s surviving son and walks to face him. Dropping onto one knee, he transfers his weight to its companion. In an embarrassing instant, the knee goes AWOL, and he nearly loses his balance. But the officiant recovers quickly. With a wry smile, he softly apologizes for an event wholly beyond the control of an elderly man.
In the space of a split second, the commander’s obeisance has been transformed into more than just a symbol. His momentary loss of dignity is personal, painful, and . . . powerful. At eighty-one years of age, he still sacrifices for his country. Watching intently from a distance just inches away, I feel my eyes cloud with tears.
As he looks into the eyes of the grieving son, he speaks the dedication that always moves me deeply: "On behalf of a grateful nation, I present this flag as a token of our appreciation for the faithful and selfless service of your loved one for this country."
It all strikes me as an incredible irony. On behalf of the combined armed forces of the most powerful military in history, a representative of that force kneels meekly to offer his country’s flag to the family of a lone fallen veteran.
The generals and admirals of the country’s last world war have long since departed. The work of distributing honor to whom honor is due falls often to World War II vets who were privates and seamen back then, barely old enough to go off to war. Some can barely hold a rifle anymore. But they embody the meaning of this ceremony in a profound sense.
We owe much to all of our veterans – dead or alive, old or young, and whether their war was popular or unpopular. Nearly every right and freedom we enjoy today has been defended on a battlefield. A veteran’s funeral with military honors is a simple, yet elegant way to pay tribute.
It also preserves our heritage, passing the memory of sacrificial service to the next generation of Americans. If a military funeral may not have been a priority for the veteran, are there children or grandchildren who could benefit from observing the ceremony? It’s a good way to keep our legacy from fading like the setting sun of that April day last year.
This Memorial Day, if you’re a veteran, be proud of your service and your legacy. And if you know a vet, take a moment to say thanks for their sacrifice. As Americans we all owe a debt to the military veterans who have made it possible for our way of life to endure.
Arnie Snyder is owner of Elder Life Advisors, Littleton, Colorado - www.elderlifeadvisors.com
© 2010, All Rights Reserved by O. Arnold Snyder