More Than Words

November 10, 2021 by Claire Coleman

“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.

9/11 from A to Z

September 10, 2021 by Claire Coleman

I wish I had more self discipline as a writer. I wish I was that person who set boundaries and gave herself permission to write even when the other parts of her life needed attention. That person who could step over laundry to be washed, bypass dishes in the sink, ignore the weeds in the flowerbed, emails to be initiate or returned and sit and write. If I could I have a list of books, blogs and articles to my name. But I can’t.

Except when it draws closer to September 11.

I am compelled to write. I feel an obligation to write. In fact I feel more of a moral obligation to do so than at any other time of year, including Christmas. And for someone who believes deeply in prayer, specifically praying for others – so much so that I wrote a book on it. Well, that says something. But where does this sense of moral obligation come from? I’m not sure. My little blog is inconsequential compared to the enormous catalog of remembrances: special tv coverage, documentaries, personal stories, the historical accounting, video footage of the events but it means something to me.

There is a spirituality to this day and reverence must be paid. Perhaps this is how my parents felt about Pearl Harbor. Neither of my parents spoke often of that day but I knew they knew men who were lost when Pearl Harbor transformed from naval station to graveyard on a Sunday in December. Lincoln referred to Gettysburg as “hallowed ground” and while other Civil War battle sites have been turned into shopping malls or parking lots, Gettysburg is preserved.

I think it comes down to respect for the dead. In battle, both sides take losses and soldiers die. That is the way of war. But when 2,977 innocent people die on a crisp September morning, – people who did nothing but show up for work or get on a plane – there is a collective grief at the enormity of the senseless loss. I have to mark the day with prayer and words from my heart to honor the lives lost.

In a previous blog, I referred to the reading of the names of those who died as a sort of litany of the saints. I still feel that way. This year, instead of watching the ceremony at Ground Zero at which the names are read, I will listen to it on the radio as I drive to a baby shower in New Jersey.

When I hear certain names, I will connect an image to that name. First, I listen for Joe who graduated a year ahead of me in high school. He was president of the student council and I was the junior representative on the executive committee. I saw him almost every day. I remember a popular guy with an easy smile and sincere heart. I remember his love of baseball.

I wait for Richard Guadagno’s name – my husbands’s cousin. He was an incredibly gifted musician, a gentle soul, a naturalist at heart who worked to protect the environment as an officer with the Fish and Wildlife Service. He gave his life fighting the highjackers on Flight 93. His wallet and badge were eventually located by an FBI agent in an area where the cockpit slammed into the ground. His badge survived his fight. His valor is part of history.

Also on my list is Michael, a young man with a young family, his third child born just weeks before the attack. I can see him bounding into the pool area of our golf club, checking on his kids, kissing his darling wife and heading off to have a beer with his mates. Frank was a husband and dad who I knew in town and from church. A great guy who loved his wife and family. The type of guy who always helped out with Little League and football practices. A salt-of-the-earth solid guy.

And then there are all the names in between. Allens, Marinos, Murphys, Rodreguezs and Rosenbaums, Wong and Woods. I listen all the way if I can or for as long as time permits. I try to listen to the last Z . I don’t know who were dishwashers or servers at the breakfast meeting at Windows on the World, who were insurance executives and secretaries, the financial brokers and traders, the police, firemen, EMS and Port Authority workers. I don’t know who were the pilots, crew and passengers on the planes or the men and women in the Pentagon. I doubt one person imagined their fate and the world altering consequences of that day.

I had a dear friend who in his career worked at three firms located in the World Trade Center. He made great friends wherever he went. In the weeks after 9/11 he went to 48 funerals. He never sat one out no matter the toll it was taking on him. He honored his friends by his presence. I will continue to listen to the names as my way of honoring all the friends, the fathers, the mothers, the sisters and brothers, sons and daughters who were victims that day. I will pray for the families they left behind. And I will write about it all next year. I must.