I met a little boy the other day. He shook my hand with a good firm grip, while looking me right in the eye. He seemed to have a confidence born of recent experience. Just seven years old, his name is Aidan.
Aidan stood out in the crowd, because he was so small—and because of the seeming unfairness that he’d even have to be where he was when I met him.
A funeral home.
He’ll surely remember the whirlwind of recent events in his life for all of his days on earth. The image of his mother weeping—grandmother, too—in fact, an entire, quite large, immediate and extended grieving family, will be something he’ll be processing as he grows up without his daddy.
Army Staff Sgt. Christopher F. Cabacoy (30) “took his job seriously,” said his uncle, Felipe, adding—“He joined the Army and put himself in harm's way to serve the country." That willingness took him from home and hearth in Virginia Beach, Virginia—from his high school sweetheart, then bride, then mother of his son, now young widow, Tamara—to the rugged and foreboding battleground of Afghanistan.
He was killed, along with one of his brother-band, Pfc Edwin C. Wood (18) of Omaha, Nebraska, when an improvised explosive device (known all-too familiarly these days simply as an “IED”) was used by insurgents in Kandahar to destroy their vehicle.
Cabacoy was laid to rest on Friday, with the honors due—formal and informal. Brigadier General, Jeffrey Banister, USAR, presented the fallen soldier’s family with posthumous decorations, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. A carefully folded flag was presented to the young widow, along with a hushed-toned, but heartfelt expression:
“This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.”
Hovering ever so honorably nearby was a group of people who have become a fixture on such occasions—men and women with their motorcycles and unmistakable attire. They’re called Patriot Guard Riders. Their initial efforts were designed to provide a shield for grieving families—a shield from the antics and atrocious behavior of deranged and depraved cultists, who, in the name of some misguided notions of “righteousness,” feel duty bound to defile that most sacred of familial moments.
But the work of the Patriot Guard Riders has gone way beyond that—though this is still very much in their minds. They describe themselves as “a diverse amalgamation of riders from across the nation,” adding:
“We have one thing in common besides motorcycles. We have an unwavering respect for those who risk their very lives for America’s freedom and security. If you share this respect, please join us. We don’t care what you ride, what your political views are, or whether you’re a hawk or a dove. It is not a requirement that you be a veteran. It doesn't matter where you’re from or what your income is. You don’t even have to ride. The only prerequisite is Respect. Our main mission is to attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family. Each mission we undertake has two basic objectives.
1. Show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities.
2. Shield the mourning family and friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors. We accomplish the latter through strictly legal and non-violent means.
To those of you who are currently serving and fighting for the freedoms of others, at home and abroad, please know that we are backing you. We honor and support you with every mission we carry out, and we are praying for a safe return home for all.”
Personally, I find their work inspiring and indicative of the kind of civility that seems to be associated with days long since gone.
As a clergyman, I have for more than 30 years been involved in the work of helping the grieving. I have seen large gatherings and small ones. I have observed the almost child-like capacity of people to laugh at a funny memory of a loved one, even as tears remained in eyes and on cheeks. Seldom at a loss for words, I find myself tongue-tied and grasping for something helpful—when there really are no words to say.
I share scripture and readings and words of comfort, but always with a consciousness that those hearing are numb with personal pain. I hope something said—“a word fitly spoken”—might find a filing place in the heart, one that can be opened later when there aren’t so many people in the room.
The military funeral is something—dare I say—special? It is, in the sense of how it brings the rest of us into the grief (or at least, should). The one being remembered—though first and foremost a beloved family member and friend—is very much part of the nation, itself.
One of us.
Mourning the loss of a fallen hero—someone who proved his valor “through liberating strife and more than self his country loved, and mercy more than life”—reminds us about what is truly important. Wise King Solomon, centuries ago, said:
“A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; and the living should take this to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” – Ecclesiastes 7:1-4 (NIV) The final gesture at most military funerals (inexplicably, no one showed to play the horn last Friday) involves 24 musical notes arranged in familiar order. “Taps” was originally a simple “lights out” signal to those in the military. But it has long since transcended that.
It is now a melody of honor, remembrance, farewell—and gratitude.