JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
I’ve seen more than my share of military traditions over the past 20 years. Countless times, I’ve sung service songs, watched the Honor Guard place the colors, and stood at attention during Reveille and Retreat.
While I’ve always admired the dignity and honor of these traditions, they became somewhat routine over the years. I didn’t truly appreciate their purpose until my father passed away.
My father served in the Army during Vietnam and as a flight surgeon in the Air Force Reserve for 20 years. He reluctantly retired over a decade ago after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and lost his battle with the disease last month.
He had one wish: to be buried at a cemetery among others who had served.
The day of his burial at a small veteran’s cemetery up north was unseasonably cold. We were all shivering as we stood outside the sparse wooden chapel waiting for the service to begin. Nearby, six service members in dress uniform stood at attention, seemingly unaffected by the frigid wind whipping at the towering trees and countless rows of American flags adorning grave sites in honor of Veterans Day.
As our family lined the pews, the Honor Guard marched in and carefully folded the U.S. flag into a perfect triangle, only the blue field visible at completion. They solemnly presented the flag to my mother in the front row, who was struggling to hold back her tears.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
The air filled with the heart-wrenching sound of Taps followed by a three-rifle volley, a tradition that comes from battle ceasefires after both sides clear the dead. As the shots rang out, I never felt so proud of my father or so grateful for our military’s traditions, particularly the honors paid to the fallen. They are honors given to all veterans, to include homeless veterans, at the gravesite.
They are traditions that most of us take for granted or even question why we carry them on. While they take time and effort, they must not fade away. They instill pride, honor, dignity, gratitude and a connection with a storied past.
That ceremony gave me a renewed appreciation for the military traditions we uphold each day at Brooke Army Medical Center, where I work – the precision of our flag postings by our tremendous Honor Guard, the changes of command and the service birthday celebrations.
Perhaps most importantly, no matter the branch, war or length of service, we salute every veteran and first responder who dies in the hospital with a flag ceremony by an Honor Guard.
After the U.S. flag is draped over the loved one, the Honor Guard leads a procession down the hall with the family at their side. As the group proceeds, nearby staff and visitors stand at attention or place their hand over their heart out of respect for the veteran’s service.
I’ve seen the tears of family members as touched and honored by this final salute to their loved one as I was at my father’s funeral.
Last night I was leaving the gym, talking on my phone, when I heard the sound of Retreat. In the past, I may have lingered inside for a few more minutes to keep out of the cold. Instead, I got off the phone, stood outside at attention, and listened until the final notes faded into the sky.