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Just the other day, my brother Dan and I were going through a storage area of mine. I was looking for a couple of things, and I found some things I wasn't looking for, but it was convenient to take them home while we were there.
One of the items I wanted was an American flag displayed in a triangular wooden case my brother-in-law Gary made. Through the glass front, the properly folded flag shows only the blue canton of white stars. This specific flag was draped over Dad's casket at his funeral. I'll always remember the military service performed at his graveside by the men of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, VFW Post 775 from Ottumwa, Iowa. I could see it again in my mind.
On a sunny day in February, my family, relatives, and friends gathered under a blue tent in the cemetery. Father Nick had completed his service. Outside the tent, a line of seven veterans in military dress stood in formation. The leader called out, "Present arms." Simultaneously the soldiers lifted their rifles, cocking them. "Aim." They raised their firearms to a 45% angle above the horizon. "Fire!" All seven men fired their guns, sending a deafening shock of sound echoing across the land. "Aim. Fire!" They fired again. "Aim. Fire!" They fired their third and final round. "Ceasefire." The leader ordered. The soldiers lowered their arms. Except for sniffles and crying, everyone was silent. My knees were shaking; I had goosebumps on my arms.
I shivered, and a chill ran down my spine as the bugler, who stood alone, played taps from a short distance away. The solitary brass horn sounded soft but powerful as it penetrated the air with an emotional song that pierced my soul. A group of local pilots flew their airplanes in a low pass above the cemetery, followed by a high-speed jet.
Two veterans returned inside the tent. With one on each end, they lifted the American flag from Dad's casket. Methodically they folded the flag. The leader narrated the significance of each of the thirteen folds. He tucked the ends, making a neat triangle, the same shape as the American Revolution's patriots' hats.
The leader carried the folded flag in his two hands at waist height. He leaned forward, presenting the American flag to my mother, who was seated. "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army Air Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your husband's honorable and faithful service." Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she received the flag and thanked him. My tears flowed, as well. I don't know if I had ever been as proud of my father as I was at that moment.
I began thinking about the people who have fought and died for this country under variations of that flag. In states that were the original thirteen colonies, I visited graveyards and read faded names on deteriorating shale and slate Patriots' grave markers. They died in the American Revolutionary War. A war to gain independence from British rule and assure our religious freedom.
I recalled visiting numerous Civil War battlefields in the east. The spirit of what happened on those fields is still vibrant. In cemeteries and graveyards around the country, I've read the names of young men whose bodies were returned home for burial. Men who died fighting under this flag in a war to end slavery and hold this country together.
I've seen many memorials around the nation honoring the men who died while fighting under this flag in World Wars One and Two. In Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, I flew over the USS Arizona. I could see the ship beneath the shallow water where she rests on the harbor floor, next to her mooring. Oil still weeps from the vessel as she continues to mourn. A bright white memorial structure straddles the deck of the battleship, which has become the tomb for those servicemen onboard. In the warm Pacific breeze, the American flag waves high above the sailors at rest.
In Washington, D.C., I ran my fingertips over names engraved in the smooth polished black granite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. I felt the spirit of those lost soldiers. It was humbling to read just some of the over fifty-eight thousand names on that wall. People had placed small American flags near their loved one's name. The emotions are overwhelming.
The feelings of pride for my father returned as I stood there, holding his flag. The feeling was bittersweet, for I also carried a sense of shame for not having served myself.
I thought of my family; Dad and his brother Dick were both in the Army Air Corps. My brother Dan, standing right next to me, and his son Warren served in the Air Force, as did my uncle John. My brother-in-law, Bill, was a Navy pilot. My nephew Avery was a Marine. Another nephew, Drake, is now serving in the Corps, and my niece Melissa, currently serves in the Illinois Army National Guard. I am proud of every one of them.
I picked up another flag in the storage area; it too was appropriately folded. It was a cotton flag with strong stitching binding the red and white stripes; the white stars were embroidered on the field of dark blue.
I found that banner in Winona, Minnesota. It was in the garage of a property we purchased from the estate of Ruth Brendel. She had been a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Medical Services Corps. I have reason to believe the flag laid over the top of her casket. I tried to reach her children to return the flag to them. Without success, I've kept the flag for the past six years.
I offered it to Danny, "Do you want this?" I asked, telling him the history. He gladly accepted it. I knew he would appreciate and take care of the flag; I also know he would respectfully return it should one of Lt. Brendel's children ever inquire about it.
I thought it was appropriate for Danny to keep her flag. Lt. Brendel never met either of us, yet she and veterans from every branch served in a military that protects us all as Americans.
I love this country. I love our American flag and everything it stands for. I'm grateful to all veterans who fought and kept a vigilant watch over our freedom, the veterans who protect my right to display the red, white, and blue so proudly.