A Noble Farewell For An American Soldier

Two days after my father died, as the visiting hours at the funeral home ended and we were putting on our coats, there was one last visitor. He was a stooped, solitary man who walked slowly to the open coffin and gazed down at my father, lying in his military dress uniform. Suddenly the visitor stood up straight and, still looking at his Army comrade, gave the brisk salute of the spirited, young GI he must have been 55 years ago. Then he slowly lowered his arm and became an old man once more, turning and shuffling out the door. His gallant gesture has come to symbolize a profound shift in my feelings toward the United States military.

My father was a retired brigadier general, a World War II veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and the march on Bastogne, who maintained an unfaltering belief in the righteousness of the United States Army and any war it might choose to fight, including Vietnam. I spent the late '60s and early '70s marching in and organizing antiwar protests, including the Washington and New York moratorium marches in 1969, and formed a women's collective to raise money for a bombed-out hospital in North Vietnam. I believed that the armed forces were an instrument for senseless destruction and imperialism. Visits home for family dinners meant arguments with my father that ended with my storming away from the table. Though our conflicts subsided as the war wound down, I couldn't begin to solve the mystery of my father's boundless devotion to the Army. Until he died.

The day before his funeral, my husband, daughter, son and I were introduced to six soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division who had driven 400 miles to serve as the honor guard. As they talked with us, I realized that, to those men, my father was not simply an elderly war veteran they had never met, but a member of their military brotherhood whose life and deeds were important. I began to see the Army through my father's eyes and to understand the camaraderie and connection that sustained him.

The following day at the funeral service, the soldiers draped the American flag over the coffin and accompanied it from the church to the cemetery. As we gathered at my father's grave site under a light December rain, four members of the honor guard stood at attention. One soldier raised his rifle and fired three shots while the bugler played taps. The flag was removed from the coffin and slowly and meticulously folded into a triangular shape. After one soldier inserted the empty casings into the flag's angled pocket, the rest of the guard lined up in formation behind the highest-ranking officer, who approached my teenage son. The officer, holding the folded flag on his outstretched palms and looking straight at my boy, said, "Please accept this flag on behalf of a grateful nation."

And so it was, at the end, the United States Army that provided my family and me with a noble conclusion to my father's life. I began to realize that the military traditions I had once considered unquestioningly rigid endure because they serve a purpose. Every morning, as long as he was able, my father raised the American flag on the pole outside his house, observed a moment of silence, then stood at attention and saluted. I had always thought this exercise sweetly eccentric but meaningless--now I envy the ritual that I, as a civilian, will never know.

The impassioned arguments that my father and I had about the war in Southeast Asia echoed across the country and across the generations. Thirty years later, those tensions have been greatly eased, in part because of the passage of time, but also because of the books and movies that have inspired a fresh interest in World War II, a just war that may ultimately eclipse the anguish of Vietnam in the nation's collective memory.

I doubt I'll ever fully accept military ideology, but I understand that the Army offered my father and members of his generation a recognition of their commitment and courage. It provided reassurance that they had contributed a significant service to their country and a bond among soldiers that survives even death.

Soon after we got home from the funeral, my son called me into his room. Unbuttoning his shirt, he said, "Mom, remember when Grandpa gave me his dog tags? I kept them on a shelf with some of his medals but when you told me he'd died, I put them on." He paused, looking down at the metal tags hanging from his neck. "He wore them all over Europe with General Patton, so I thought I should wear them until the funeral was over. I think he would have liked that."

I think so, too. And I think he would have been gratified to learn that his grandson's generation, those who grew up after the glorious victories of World War II and the raging divisiveness of the war in Vietnam, have achieved the equanimity that allows them to wear dog tags with nothing but pride.