A heartbreaking story

Posted: Feb 16, 2007 12:07 AM
A heartbreaking story

I’ve just been told a heartbreaking story. And it’s one of those stories that usually end in total helplessness, but since I’m fortunate enough to have a forum like this weekly column at Townhall.com, I hope you’ll engage me for a minute or two and allow me to share this awful tale with you.

This morning, I heard from an old friend of mine, someone I knew many years ago when I was a young man in Ohio. I could hear the pain and anger in his voice, even after not talking with him in a number of years.

One of his closest friends, a young man named Nicholas, was killed in Iraq last month. This hero soldier had recently married his sweetheart and was home on leave when he and his wife welcomed their new baby into the world. A few weeks later, Nicholas lost his life in Iraq while fighting for his country.

As many soldiers before him had done, Nicholas had requested that if he wound up paying the ultimate sacrifice, he wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington, of course, is sacred ground, the ultimate resting place for thousands of our nation’s bravest and finest Americans.

My friend drove from Ohio to D.C. to say good-bye to his friend. The ceremony was simple and poignant, the tears flowed freely. As the family left the cemetery, he lingered a bit at the grave with some other friends. They just couldn’t comprehend that their buddy was gone. Still can’t, in fact.

What they witnessed next was something that will haunt them forever.

With the family gone and the area cleared out, my friends watched as four civilian workers began to handle the casket. The honor guard was gone, the military escort had left. Just four workers and a beloved soldier, husband, father, and friend in a casket.

The men struggled to lift the casket and put it into the vault, which was up on some kind of a forklift. Evidently, the walls of the grave that had been dug were collapsing and they weren’t able to lower the casket into the ground. They watched as the men basically dumped the casket, like a load of garbage, into the vault. It crashed into the container, and the forklift spun it around like a top. My friend said there could be no doubt that Nicholas’ body would have been thrown around in the casket. In fact, he believes that the casket would have been damaged considering the way the men tossed it around in the container.

These witnesses cried out in anger and anguish. They went to Arlington’s administration office and encountered a sympathetic officer. “What would you like us to do?” he asked my friends. “We want the body exhumed so that Nicholas can be straightened out in the casket, the men who did this to him should be reprimanded, and there should be some kind of protocol change so that someone can oversee these soldier’s burials so that this can’t happen again to anyone else”, they said.

The officer was patient and kind and sympathetic, my buddy told me. But he indicated that none of that is likely to happen. He told him that there are, on average, 22 funerals a day at Arlington. This was probably an isolated case, he said. It would be too expensive to exhume the body. And there would be no plans to change their protocols.

Not long ago, there was a huge controversy that arose when an airline passenger saw a military casket loaded onto a baggage cart. She wrote a column that expressed her belief that the casket was loaded onto a cart with other luggage, an assertion the airline disputed. But at no point did the woman claim that the casket was tossed around or the body disturbed.

In this case, my friend insists that several civilian workers threw around their close friend like a rag doll. Their hearts were torn out over what they saw. They asked for, and expect, some kind of response. This isn’t the kind of person who will run to a lawyer threatening a lawsuit. He just wants to make sure his friend’s body is treated respectfully and that nothing like this can happen to anyone again.

On the phone, my friend began to cry. He called me, after all these years, because he didn’t know who else to turn to.

I don’t exactly know who to turn to, either. I certainly know some Congressmen and Senators who might be able to help. Maybe someone who reads this column can make some suggestions.

But I promised my friend that I would tell you his story.

At least that’s a start.

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