Even back in my Navy days, with my “Death Before Re-enlistment” coffee mug and 20-something know-it-all-attitude, few would have guessed that I silently harbored a sense of pride in serving as well as a deep respect for my fellow ship- and shore-mates. Some served with distinction, some were losers and others, such as myself, were somewhere in-between. We all sacrificed our personal freedoms to protect the freedoms of others, so I always gave at least a little credit to those who served.
I have many memories from my Navy days, but the one that stands out among all others was the time I served as a pall-bearer for a serviceman who returned home after being MIA for many years.
It was sometime in ’89 or ’90 when I was in DS (Data Systems) A-school and a member of the Mare Island Navy Drill Team. We would perform in parades and other events, but there was this one time they solicited volunteers for a type of funeral procession. I had no idea what was involved, but I do recall being driven to volunteer. Like many scenarios since, it was just something I had to do and it didn’t matter if I understood why. So I volunteered.
During our briefing, they told us that there were only a few fragments of bone in the casket, so it would not weigh much. I don’t recall many other details, though I was very focused on what my role was and what was expected of me. I was instructed to dress in my full drill team attire, but I would not be performing with my rifle. My role was simply shouldering the weight of a casket, along with a number of my fellow servicemen from all branches of the military.
The procession began in the back of a military airplane. We simultaneously picked up the casket, turned forward and marched out the back of the plane. I recall making a sharp right-turn, then another. It was after the first right turn, when we were facing the crowd, that I fully understood the gravity of the situation.
I was no longer carrying a box that contained a few bones of a fellow serviceman. I was shouldering the memory of a fallen hero. This was someone who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the good of their country. I had heard that “ultimate sacrifice” phrase before, but it wasn’t until that moment that I truly understood what it meant.
And here was rebellious little me with all my personal issues and attitude, marching toward a large crowd of people who were there to welcome home a fallen hero after many years. I felt wholeheartedly un-worthy at that very moment, and fought hard to keep focused on the task at hand. My feelings at the time were inconsequential. This was his day, and regardless of my worthiness, I was given this honor and was going to complete it in a manner that he deserved.
So I concentrated on keeping in step with the rest of the pall-bearers, with my eyes forward and my moves sharp. I don’t remember much else after that final right-turn when we marched past the family. In my mind it was all about doing right by this fallen hero, and by all accounts we did just that.
To this day I still don’t feel I at all deserved such an honor, but it remains a memory I hold dear and something I’ll forever be glad I participated in.
You don’t have to be a “patriot” to recognize the greatness and sacrifice in others. You just have to acknowledge it.
So on this Memorial Day, to all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect my freedoms as a citizen, I acknowledge you and will forever appreciate what you’ve done.