Funeral Duty

(By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By William Troy
Monday, May 26, 2008

Throughout this war, the Army has maintained the practice of assigning a general officer to attend the funeral of every soldier who falls in service to our country. I've had this duty many times. The intensity of each funeral leaves me struggling to understand the enormousness of the sacrifice to which I have been a witness.

My first funeral is as clear in my mind as scenes from a familiar movie. Pfc. Christopher Kilpatrick died on June 20, 2005. I think everyone in town knew him. The residents of Columbus, Tex., filled every chair at the Knights of Columbus hall, and well-wishers lined the walls. His two sisters made a memorial video set to music. It was a moving tribute to the baby brother they fussed over; the toddler in cowboy boots; the youngster growing up hunting and fishing; the Eagle Scout; the basketball player letting a three-point shot fly; the kid with a big smile and the obligatory pickup truck.

I had to speak after that video, and I wasn't sure the words would come out. I blocked out the rest of the hall and tried to address his parents and sisters. I hope I did Christopher justice. We laid him to rest just outside of town. When I tried to tell my wife about it later, through my tears all I could say was, "Today was supposed to be his 19th birthday."

Every funeral is different. Each family copes in their own way. Our job is to oversee the military aspects of the services -- taps, the firing of three rifle volleys, the folding and presentation of the flag. You comfort where you can and bear witness to the loss that the family, friends and community have suffered.

I have attended 23 funerals in many different states and, to my surprise, have never encountered an angry parent -- only heartbroken ones who are intensely proud of their son or daughter. Grief is the crushing load these parents and spouses bear. Yet far more often than not they treat the military in attendance as family. They invite us to the receptions after the services, where they show us scrapbooks and introduce us to friends. They hug us and wish us a safe return to our units and families. They smile through their tears. I often get the feeling their sense of duty wills them through. I suspect that when the crowds have left and they are allowed to be alone, they collapse in grief and exhaustion.

During funerals, we typically read the tributes offered at the services conducted in theater. Nothing speaks to the families like the words of buddies and commanders. These people knew him or lived with her; fought beside and loved them. When a tank commander writes about the loss of his driver, you realize that a tank crew is a single entity -- a living, breathing organism. It, too, has lost an integral piece that made it whole. Voices from deployed units transcend the miles and speak with an eloquence I could never approach. I never try. I simply read what they wrote.

Though I haven't counted, I have not come across more than a handful of parents who were still together. Usually the separated parents support and comfort one another, but not always. I have shared a couple of funerals where the father left early in his son's life and returned only upon his death. At my second funeral, I was told that such an absent father was rumored to be around. We learned that the father had gone to the funeral home after visitation, but no one knew if he was going to show for the services. Because the awards and folded flag are presented to the next of kin, the military party had to know if he would be present. As we walked with the family to the service, I was told he was not present. Yet as I took my seat, there he was at the end of the family pew. He had slipped in at the last moment. When I presented the awards to him, he murmured a quiet thanks. At the grave site, as I watched him from a respectful distance, my heart broke for him as much as for the soldier's mother. He was saying his silent goodbye, and he was utterly alone.

My funeral duty has taught me a lot. The cynicism with which some people view politicians doesn't square with what I've seen. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Mike Gregoire, husband of the governor of Washington, attended just about every funeral I went to in their states. Absent the media or official entourages, they personally expressed condolences to grieving families. I've learned that the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle club may seem unconventional, but its members' patriotism and sincerity are undeniable.

And I've learned that war most often claims the lives of young kids who go out on patrol day after day, night after night. They go because they are good soldiers led by good sergeants. They go with a singular purpose: to not let their buddies down. Each soldier we lay to rest shared that goal. They kept faith with their comrades, even in the face of danger and death. That is the most humbling lesson of all.

Maj. Gen. William Troy is vice director for force structure, resources and assessment in the Joint Staff. In 2006-07 he served as deputy commanding general of I Corps at Fort Lewis, Wash. In 2005-06, he was DCG (Support) of 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Tex.

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