More Than Words

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

I first heard those words in December 1973 at my father’s funeral. At that point in my life, my funeral experiences were limited. I had never been to a gravesite much less one where a flag was presented to a widow or child.

I was not prepared for what I heard from the officer. I was rooted to the spot and my heart, already broken by the death of my dad, somehow clenched. “The Nation” was grateful.

Presidents come and go, ie. Nixon was the President when my dad died. I knew no one in the echelons of the US Navy, upper or otherwise. But the Nation? The people “of the nation” were all around me and they were also citizens in the furthest corners of our country. Nonetheless, they were represented in the ceremony, in the flag presentation and in the words of recognition. From that moment on, I waited and listened for those words at funerals. They always moved me to tears.

Military service is a shared experience of which I have no first hand knowledge. I wonder if there is a deep warrior camaraderie that instantly comprehends a service person’s experience when they identify their war – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – and the location – Chosin, Gulf of Tonkin, Fallujah, Kamdesh. They just know. And maybe they know, better than anyone else, what it is like to return from the war and deal with an injury, nightmares, PTSD. Maybe they just know.

I only acknowledge what it is like to be on the other side. Waiting for the deployed loved one to return unharmed, unscathed. My brother served three tours in Vietnam and my nephew served in Iraq. Sons and daughters of friends served our country home and abroad. I know what it is to worry every day about their safety. I can tell you that said more rosaries during those times of deployment than any other time in my life, before or since.

While my family no longer serves overseas, someone else’s son, daughter, husband, wife, father or mother is there. I still pray for our military.They protect us night and day. In “The Watch”, a poem recited at some naval retirements, these lines stand out to me on Veterans Day: “He stood the watch so that we, our families and our fellow countrymen could sleep soundly in safety. Each and every night…”

Thank God for those in all branches of the military. Thank God for our veterans. Thank God for those who answered when called. Thank God for those who volunteered before being called. For all those who gave years of their lives to “honorable and faithful service” and for all of those who gave the last measure of their lives.

I will always be part of the “grateful Nation” who honors your service.

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