Thursday, June 05, 2008

‘Final Salute’ Bears Witness to the Fallen of the Iraq War and Those Who Grieve

The New York Times has a book review of Jim Sheeler's "Final Salute" a study of the families and military men who are called upon to notify the families of the deaths of their loved ones.

In my time in the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard, I had the opportunity to witness some amazing things and some tragic things. While the high profile tasks of White House Arrival Ceremonies for foriegn heads of state and State Dinners are truly wonderful events to perform at, the fact of the matter is that the day in, day out task of the military honor guards are funerals, paying the Final Salute to fallen soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors.

In truth it can be a rather taxing job. No the ceremony is not complicated, and after having performed it a number of times, most Guardsmen can do it perfectly each time, every time. What makes it hard is that each time we go out on a funeral, there is someone whose life has ended and we are there to usher them to the next stage.

My time in the Ceremonial Guard was in the early 1990's. At that time, a fair number of World War II veterans were dying and performing the funeral ceremony for those events was, while difficult, a bit easier to take. However, shortly before the Gulf War, a ferry capsized in Haifa, Israel and over forty sailors died. That was hard because those sailors were my peers, that could have been me.

Sheeler's book follows a Marine Major Steve Beck:
Among the most difficult aspects of Major Beck’s job is to deal with its political implications. “If you don’t feel this loss in some way, I’m not so sure you’re an American, frankly,” he says. “When I hand that flag to them and say ‘On behalf of a grateful nation,’ it’s supposed to mean something.”

But when a chaplain once tried to silence a mother who cursed the president, Major Beck corrected the clergyman. “The best way to handle that situation,” he says, “is not to tell someone what they can or cannot do in their own home.”

This book enters a number of homes and follows their occupants through the grieving process. “Final Salute” is organized through chapters about these individual families. It pays particular attention to that of Lieutenant Cathey, whose pregnant wife refused to leave her husband’s coffin on the night before his burial and slept nearby on an air mattress, protected by a Marine honor guard.
Perhaps the most vivid memory I have was working as an escort petty office for a simple honors funeral for a Seaman killed in an accident at sea. One of the duties of the Escort Petty Officer is to present the folded flag to the family and recite "On behalf of a grateful Nation, ..." The mother of this young boy, who probably was no more than 18 or 19 years old looked at me with tears and absolute rage in her eyes. She wanted to strike me, I could see her arms twitch and finally she did. She smacked me with all the force she could muster (which was quite a lot--I saw stars in my eyes for about five minutes), but what could I do? Here I was, the representative of the U.S. Navy and the President of the United States giving her a flag and saying that this flag represents her son's sacrifice.

I couldn't have been more than a year or two older than her son, if that old. Here I was, young healthy and alive, a physical reminder of her son's youth now taken by cruel fate. That is something that the Navy didn't teach me to handle. I was shocked to say the least (it never happened to me before and never again after that). I have seen tears, I have seen stoicism, I have seen barely controlled outbursts at the grave site, but I had never been physically assaulted. But looking back at what Major Beck counseled, it seemed to me that I did the right thing. I stood up I saluted her, I saluted her family and I walked away. To this day, it was the single hardest ceremony I ever performed and the only funeral ceremony I remember.

I will never forget that day and Sheeler's book will, I hope, help other people understand. Go see this slideshow and tell me you don't feel the pain.

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