Monday, March 23, 2009

On Behalf of a Grateful Nation

They chat amicably but subdued; relaxed, smiling, and renewing acquaintances. The nine military men stand in a circle in front of a mortuary on a lovely early spring afternoon. I watch from around the corner of the building, where I aim to stay out of sight of the funeral attendees.

The men vary in age and represent different military branches. Two Air Force officers in blue coats. One Navy officer in his “dress blue” double breasted jacket (that looks black to me). The two enlisted Army men clad in their old dress green uniforms are younger than the rest. The four men in VFW uniforms appear somewhat older than the others. All of the men wear shiny black footwear.

A signal comes from inside the building. The VFW men retrieve rifles from a nearby vehicle and assemble in a line at attention in front of the building. The five men in Class A military uniforms assemble in a wedge formation arranged by rank, and enter the building.

Although I can’t see what is happening inside, I am familiar with the procedure. The military men step to the flag draped casket, lift the flag, and silently fold it with military precision. I see the leader of the rifle detail call the order. The riflemen fire three volleys with exact coordination and return to attention.

I watch as my teenage son — a volunteer with Bugles Across America who has been standing at attention in his BSA Venturing uniform — raises his trumpet to his lips and begins sounding the haunting melody of Taps. Today he has a friend along, also in Venturing uniform. He is near me, out of sight of the funeral attendees. At the end of each stanza, my son pauses as his friend sounds a repeat of the same notes on his own trumpet. This is known as Echo Taps.

I know that inside the building, the five military men are facing the casket and presenting a final salute. Following the sounding of Taps, a member of the flag detail steps forward, kneels before a family representative, and presents the folded flag on behalf of a grateful nation for their loved one’s service. (Each branch of the service has its own wording.)

The flag detail reassembles and exits the building. “At ease” is ordered. All of the military men quickly gather up the brass (shell casings) from the ground. The rifle detail stows the rifles. Then there are handshakes and appreciation all around. One of the VFW members smilingly tells my son’s friend, “Good luck, Herb Alpert.”

The look in these men’s eyes and their demeanor says it all. They are honored to perform this service; an act they consider important and sacred. Each of them is fully aware that someday it will be their turn to be the honoree at a similar service.

The two teenagers chatter in the car as I drive away. The sunny afternoon looks the same, but something inside me is different. I feel a little more thoughtful. A little more grateful.

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