Arlington National Cemetery
Yesterday I had the privilege of seeing an interment ceremony for my father Air Force Major Steven E. Sherwood in Arlington National Cemetery. I was blessed to have my wife and two daughters there with me. While some might question whether or not a 3.5 and 2 year old belong at a ceremony like this, I was happy they could be there and provide some lightness while also I think it’s necessary to open children up to all stages of life so that things like death are kept in perspective rather than feared.
We mourned last year when dad died, but yesterday was an intimate event meant to demonstrate respect and celebrate a life so largely dedicated to public service. My daughters may not remember it, but they were at least exposed to some cool rituals and were able to ask some interesting questions including “is that horse poop? Why did he do that?”
Please note, any serviceman can apply for a burial in Arlington. It’s not reserved for “heroes” or the “elite” per se, but you do have to be approved and basically have led a good life (https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/funerals/scheduling-a-funeral/establishing-eligibility). What really struck me about the whole thing though was the power of the ceremony to communicate the brotherhood experienced by those in the armed forces. Everything about the ceremony felt centered around “respect”.
They had people who guided you every step of the process. At entry into the cemetery they had you wait until they were ready to guide you where to go. Then they had parking with a digital sign with my father's name on it. From there we went to a waiting room reserved for family and a representative came in and explained the WHOLE process to us while we waited (or at least while the adults waited...my girls were busy playing Ashes, Ashes we all fall down...). From there we drove to a place where 30 or so Air Force soldiers awaited - some members of a band, others a color guard, others to march, etc.). After that, off to the burial location for the ceremony and presentation of the flag to my stepmother, and then finally they showed us where dad's ashes would be buried at final rest.
But the things the Air Force chaplain said were perfect; touching but also demonstrative of the service that an armed forces veteran commit to when enlisting. There is a true brotherhood that transcends "personal" interaction when one is a member of the armed services. It's a fraternal order that most of us won't know nor truly understand because these strangers performed a beautiful ceremony for someone they didn't personally know. But despite being strangers, they performed every aspect of the ceremony including the multiple inspections of the flag before presenting it to Hong (my stepmother).
And at the last moment, a woman perhaps from the Arlington Ladies (a group of women who make sure no soldier is buried alone) came up to Hong, handed her a letter and said some of the most touching words of gratitude for my father's service.
I don't think I ever understood what my father was a part of in his service and his patriotism. I knew he loved America to the core of his being and he was frequently guilty of putting the country first, but it's what is asked of each one of the men and women who choose to serve. There were not 10's of us, or 100's of us in attendance, but what an amazing sight it was to recognize that no matter the size of the funeral party, the soldier who is buried receives the same amount of respect and professional courtesy.
I've been witness to this on multiple occasions (even if not "formally") where other servicemen from the same branch or VFW communities support a fallen comrade. This bond is just beautiful to see and experience as one can know that they are never "alone" once they have lived a military life.
I went with my family to participate in this with the hopes of helping my stepmother, seeing my father's wishes fulfilled, and also to give my kids some exposure to something they may never see again in their lifetime. But I walk away with a new respect for the commitment that military members make to each other. Few professions or life paths will deliver on the promise that the military can; a recognition of your desire to serve your country that will warrant a lifetime of respect among all your brethren past and present...