As I watched her approach, my pulse quickened. In my mind, I recited what I would say to her. For several days, I rehearsed the message at least 20 times until I could say it flawlessly. However, practicing in a mirror is no substitute for saying it in person. She took her seat gracefully. Now it was only a matter of minutes until I spoke the words to her. It was as if an invisible hand placed me in front of her, for I do not recall moving. In that moment, she was the most important person on the face of the earth. Since she was looking downward, I knelt before her, looked into her eyes and said: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
Since my transition from the U.S. Navy after 30 years of service, I have often reflected on how an individual is entrusted with representing the president, the Navy and the nation to present the flag of the United States of America to the loved one of a deceased servicemember. If the meaning of those words does not put a lump in your throat and mist in your eyes, permit me to take your pulse. Having supervised thousands of burials at Arlington National Cemetery and participated in burials at sea, I fully recognize that my worldview is shaped and defined by the families and friends gathered to honor their loved one. My worldview is shaped and defined by having observed the casket team, firing party, folding of the flag, presentation of the flag, marching element, military band and taps sounded by the bugler. Yes. Taps. How is it that a bugle call has the power to evoke so much emotion and open up a floodgate of tears?
How a nation honors its fallen speaks volumes regarding its character, conscience and what it holds dear. Likewise, a nation’s symbols and ceremonies represent its character, conscience and what it holds dear. I only served as a mouthpiece for all the personnel who participated in the burials with me to represent the president, the Navy and a grateful nation. To be entrusted with such a mission is humbling. To look into the eyes of a servicemember’s loved one and present the symbol of our nation - that is extraordinary.