We buried my nephew on Veteran's Day in northern Wisconsin on a day that broke weather records for its warmth and which mirrored the kindness of that small town and many strangers.
When we arrived Ben's mom was on the phone with Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind. A man who could not have been better named considering what he was about to do for this grieving family. It seems the Army was able to locate and order my Naval Reserve brother, Ben's uncle serving in Kuwait, to accompany Ben home but it wasn't able to persuade someone in Dover that getting Ben home in time for his own funeral was a high priority. In the next couple of hours Rep. Kind was able to turn that around.
The Army assigned a wonderful woman named Sgt. Thomas to aid my brother and his wife through the whole process. It's one thing to lose your son, it's a whole 'nother battle for civilians to try and interface with the military system. This was Sgt. Thomas' first funeral and she did an outstanding job. It was obvious she was on top of everything and very gracious and accommodating. She displayed a tenderheartedness that is rare.
It was during our conversation with her and the chaplain a couple of hours later to discuss funeral arrangements that she got a phone call on her cell saying that Ben would arrive home in the early morning. The relief to us was huge and it was to her also. She shut her phone saying "Thank you, Jesus. Now I can breath." and then after a short pause "I could sure use a cold one." It was a wonderfully honest moment and while she was embarrassed at the mention of liquor in front of the chaplain, apparently, we completely understood and got a chuckle out of her comment. We were at least equally relieved.
Within moments Cong. Kind's office was ringing my brother's phone and the funeral director was walking in and confirming what Sgt. Thomas had just told us. Ben was on the move and things were back on track.
The only sticking point in the arrangements seemed to be that my brother and his wife wanted there to be fireworks after the visitation. Ben loved fireworks and his last display had been named "Shock and Awe". But, apparently, even small towns have strict regulations. Getting just about whatever they wanted wasn't the problem as a close family friend was in the business. The discussion about how to get around the ordinance, not wanting to have the funeral home suffer the consequences of this display and debating what sort of neighbor wouldn't understand or whether local law enforcement would overlook this special occasion took some time. In the end the large box of fireworks were doled out to those attending the visitation who wanted them, we witnessed a 20 minute display in the funeral home parking lot and the remainder, 'the big stuff', was given to Ben's local Civil Air Patrol buddies. After the visitation they gathered at the home that has regularly hosted this group of young people and the police were called. But no ticket was issued.
If there is any upside to an event like this it's that family makes a special effort to gather. We did the calculating and my brothers and I hadn't all been in the same room since the late '70's when I left home. Most of this diaspora was the result of military service. I was sent to Fort Campbell, one brother did his service in Bahrain and Guantanamo
Our conversation with the chaplain was a time of remembering the amazing number of family members, on both sides of Ben's family, that had served in the military and, specifically, the number who, like Ben, had been assigned to Fort Campbell's 101st Airborne.
It was one of those military members that noticed at the visitation that Ben's uniform lacked his Air Assault wings. Representing Fort Campbell was a Sgt. Dorsey. He took the wings off his own uniform and put them on Ben's. It was a touching and telling moment. To the last, his comrades were making sure he had what he needed. To the last they extended themselves and gave what they could.
Just before the funeral dignitaries from the army and local and state politicians paid their respects to my brother and his wife. Ben was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. The last of many awards this remarkable young man received.
My brother spoke briefly at the funeral. He rose to say that his son had taught him many things and one of those was to be a man when it was time.
We were told that some protesters were out front of the church but that a group of vets on motorcycles were between us and them revving their engines in order to drown out the noise. We never saw the protestors. We never heard them. We did see folks lined up outside the funeral home with signs of thanks and blessing. We did see the blocks in front of my brother's house lined with American flags. We did see hundreds come to pay their respects and express their thankfulness for Ben's service. Many had never met Ben but were compelled to come. Their coming and their protection were appreciated by the family.
The two hour drive through the rough backroads of Wisconsin lead us to a relatively new veteran's cemetery and Ben's spot on the lawn. The commitment ceremony was brief. The 21 gun salute was loud and startling after a period of quiet reflection. The folding of the flag and the presentation to Ben's mom, while always heart wrenching to witness, was even more difficult. Somehow my brother and his wife managed to maintain their composure and accept the thanks of a grateful nation.
We were instructed by the military that we couldn't stay for the actual internment. But we ignored that order. We asked the men actually burying Ben's casket if we could see the marker. They didn't hesitate to remove its protective box and let us read:
July 5, 1984 - November 2, 2005
BRAVE AND FREE