My Dad was a Veteran of WWII and served in the Air National Guard for many years. Rising through the ranks, he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel—two grades below General. Toward the end of his life, he tragically suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for more than ten years as it inexorably ate away his memory. Like the saying, on July 8, 2011 at age 92, the old soldier finally faded away.
He was bestowed the privilege of burial in Arlington Cemetery for his valor during combat duty in the Pacific. The National Cemetery schedules 27 internments a day, including burials of active duty soldiers serving in Afghanistan–we waited nearly seven weeks for Dad’s cremated remains to receive a proper military service. Our family opted not to wait until November 3rd, the earliest date available for full military honors including a caisson to carry him to the gravesite.
As anticipated, plans and procedures were meticulously carried out despite the earthquake that hit Virginia a day earlier. We entered the main gates and it was so humbling to see mile after mile, row upon row of perfectly aligned white marble slabs, identifying more than 320,000 servicemen’s graves. The mere sight will snap even a civilian to attention.
We were directed to the Administration building and then to a gathering room for families awaiting ceremonies. A television monitor displayed live coverage of the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, something that transfixed the grandchildren’s attention.
My 91-year-old Mother and I handed over the required documents and were given a map with a marker denoting my Father’s plot. We drove to his internment location, past the Air Force Memorial whose spires of steel evoke the vibrant force of flight. A squad of soldiers awaited in formation to escort Lieutenant Colonel John Palmer, Jr.’s urn to the gravesite. Our family and friends followed. A highly decorated military chaplain delivered a brief service with the utmost dignity and care. His speech was passionate and he praised my Dad for serving his country in a courageous way. He honored my Dad and all the others buried in the hallowed sanctuary and hailed my father as a true American patriot.
A three-volley salute was fired by a formation of seven soldiers stationed to our left. A lone bugler played Taps, a somber farewell muted by the enormity of the endless grounds. The flag, held over the urn during the service, was precisely folded by six members of the unit and delivered to the leader for inspection. He then passed the triangular shaped cloth to the chaplain who presented it to my Mother. Although the chaplain did not know our family, his warmth was genuine and you could feel his sincerity.
An Arlington Lady approached my Mom, a representative of the wives of soldiers buried here, and paid her respects–a truly noble gesture by this group of volunteers. Then we stood and filed by his remains placing a red rose on the stand.
The ceremony didn’t take long but it was a poignant and most dignified way to send off to a man who loved his country and proudly served. All is well and now he gently rests in the Nation’s shrine.
If you go:
Arlington National Cemetery lies across the Potomac River from Washington, DC and is open from 8 am to 5 pm except from April 1-September 30 when it stays open until 7 pm. Paid visitor parking is off Memorial Drive. Access to the cemetery is free and visitors may walk to see John Kennedy’s grave or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; however it is a mile uphill. To avoid the walk, purchase tour bus tickets at the Visitor’s Center to see Robert E. Lee’s house and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Visitor Information at 877 907 8585 or www.arlingtoncemetery.mil