– William Tecumseh Sherman
We choose to serve. And when we choose to serve, sometimes chance chooses us. Every deployed service member leaves behind someone who cares, someone who, when giving one last hug before their warrior ships out, feels their pride clash with the fear that this last hug might be the last hug. After that, every call from an unknown number, every unexpected knock on the door, reignites the constant worry in the daily lives of those on the home front, making them shudder at the prospect of what might be.
When an American service member is killed overseas, a casualty assistance officer, or CAO, tries to reach the family in the morning, in the relative privacy of their home, rather than making a call to an office or lingering in the neighborhood, waiting for a spouse or parent to come home.
The families might hear the closing thud of car doors — CAOs always travel in pairs — and then see two service members in dress uniforms approaching their door. Some greet the CAOs on their doorstep, knowing there is only one reason anybody wearing that uniform would be visiting. Others slam the door in the officers’ faces or even forcefully confront them. It takes a resolute heart, edged with compassion, to ask:
“Are you — ?”
Some have tears welling in their eyes; some stand with stoic poise; others are in dumbstruck shock; but when they reply “Yes,” the next words deliver the crushing news: “We regret to inform you that . . . ” They hear the name and the word “killed,” but everything else comes as a blur.
Thousands of miles away, others prepare for the homecoming. Packed in ice in an airtight aluminum casket, with an American flag draped and secured on top, the blue star field at the head, the fallen warrior is carried onto an awaiting plane. Others stand at attention, saluting when their brother or sister in arms passes them a final time. When the plane arrives at a U.S. Air Force base, the awaiting family is given some moments alone with their loved one before the journey to a final resting place begins.
For some, that place is a small plot in their home town. Others go to one of the national cemeteries. The most famous is Arlington, across the river from our nation’s capital, where thousands of our nation’s heroes are buried. They lie under symmetrically sculpted headstones, simply engraved and aligned with those of the others resting there, who were buried after a somber and precise ceremony.
The family is seated, and a horse-drawn caisson brings the coffin to the gravesite. Other soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines march with the carriage, keeping in step with the quiet cadence murmured by a non-commissioned officer (NCO). At the gravesite, pallbearers lift the casket from the caisson and carry it to a platform. A chaplain reads a prayer; friends make tear-choked speeches, and behind the crowd a team raises their rifles, firing into the air three times. The sudden crack of rounds jolts the senses of the mourners. Taps are played while the flag that was draped over the casket is tightly folded and handed to an officer or senior NCO, who approaches a spouse, a parent or a child, kneels, and says, “On behalf of the president of the United States . . . and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
In an era when military service is the exception rather than the norm, the deaths of our service members in combat is often a concept as distant as the lands where they fought. Local newspapers may run an article about the hometown hero, but usually, little attention is paid to a life cut short in service to our nation, the loss drowned out among news of celebrity gossip, political shenanigans or the other minutiae that consume our lives. The families of those killed in action are soon left to face their grief as well as they can, often alone. For them, the ceremonies honoring their loved ones are a stark reminder that one of the constant realities of war throughout history is that bad things will happen to good people.
This Memorial Day, take a moment to honor and remember them.