On May 17, 1987, in the Persian Gulf, an unprovoked Iraqi jet fired two Exocet missiles into the USS Stark (FFG-31). 37 men died. At that time, I was serving as the Aide to Rear Admiral Robert Phillips. We represented the United States Navy at services for two of the fallen Sailors. The first was in Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania. I had to use Google to remember Petty Officer Dunlap’s name. I can’t remember details on the siblings and father. His mother, however, I will never forget. While her features have dimmed from my memory, her compassion has remained etched on my heart.
Death and naval service, of course, are not strange bedfellows. The shadow cast by the twin pillars of service and sacrifice loom quietly over military funerals. The crisp professionalism of this ceremonial paying of respect is the final demonstration of compassion and gratitude a nation can provide a veteran’s family.
It just doesn’t always work out that way.
Heart wrenching silence followed the faded echoes of Honor Guard boots crisply snapping in the narthex. It was cold in the 19th Century church. Only two birds flitting in the rafters and a mild hint of freshly cut grass gave any sense of springtime in the rural Pennsylvania town. Dressed in the formal, high-collared, dress white uniform, I took my position, beside the Admiral, at the spot normally reserved for the Best Man. There was no groom, no bride. With elbows bent, my white-gloved hands held the ceremonial tri-folded flag in front of my chest.
We faced the Mother of the deceased. The three-foot chasm between us was so awkwardly close, yet impersonally distant.
The sad, slow sound of “Taps” began. For 35 seconds, the lone bugler’s notes stirred deeply and profoundly. With a clenched jaw and a stone face I focused my eyes on the plaster wall near the rafters. As I tried to maintain the prescribed decorum with a stoic, statue-like appearance, I squeezed the flag so tightly I thought my fingers would break. Then, as my gaze lowered to view a mother living her worst nightmare – my heart sank, my mind raced.
What if my kids die before me? How would I handle this? What would this be like for Mom? How many times did Dad have to do this? Would anybody else show up? How can the Admiral be so calm? They never taught us this at the Academy! How can she stand there so strong? Look at her in the eyes! LOOK AT HER – she has earned that! I want this to be done. I want to run!
My chest shuddered, my eyes then welled-over with tears I could not fight. I looked to her strand of small pearls, her simple black dress, her tired shoes, and the ceramic floor – anything to not feel the unexpected and unwelcome deep-seated dread. My breathing slowed, but my hollow chest and tense limbs ached from the weight of knowing my tears fell onto her flag.
As the bugler finished, a sadder, softer silence prevailed; giving way to the blurred buzz that was the Admiral’s final words of comfort, our nation’s final words of thanks. It was so hard to look at her. I wanted to hide. On cue, I handed the damp-edged, patriotic memento reserved for next-of-kin, to the Admiral. Now, with fists clenched at my sides and no flag to hide behind, I felt naked, inadequate – standing before this mother who has paid the ultimate sacrifice. I wish I would have been more composed; professional. I wasn’t. Tears streamed down my face and dropped quietly to my feet.
Silence reigned; her trembling hands reluctantly reached out, as if for her lost boy’s baby blanket. Powerlessly, unprofessionally, my shoulders jerked, my face contorted, more tears fell. She then stepped forward, across the chasm, with her son’s legacy in hand. She embraced me, consoled me. Stepping back, clutching the folded flag to her heart, still holding on to my sleeve at the elbow, she mouthed, “Thank you”.
Slowly, she turned to walk down the aisle.