Whoever Sits In the Chair

I was slow to get out of the car. This was the first African-American funeral I had been assigned to work. I wasn’t from the South and I’d been raised in a largely white community. I had no idea how the families would react to a white, female officer providing military honors for their Veteran.

The US Army Flight School, located at Ft Rucker Alabama, is an assembly line for producing, packaging, and pushing out pilots.  The training plan is set for months but sometimes the perfectly synchronized schedule gets delayed by bad weather or not enough aircraft. This is how students end up in what we lovingly referred to as a “bubble,” or clogs in the training pipeline. A bubble is why I was temporarily assigned to a new job – funeral detail — and sitting apprehensively in a car at a cemetery outside Mobile, AL.

When someone serves in the military, they are entitled a funeral with military honors.  While some Veterans are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, most are buried near their homes at local cemeteries. The military unit stationed nearby is tasked to provide military honors for local funerals. Fort Rucker had the responsibly to conduct military funerals for the entire state of Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

I had a task to do. I had a Veteran to honor. So, I put my headgear on and got out of the car.

That day, I was aware of my insecurities about the color of my skin, being a female in uniform, and being surrounded by not a single person that looked like me. I scanned the crowd, desperately trying to determine how the families felt about me. I struggled to contain my apprehension as I knelt and handed the folded flag to the elderly widow who sat, ever so delicately in her graveside chair.

Her eyes met mine.

I passed that flag and completed the sacred pact our military had made to this Veteran so many years ago when he raised his hand to serve.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

As I recited the words of our Nation’s gratitude, I saw the weight of her loss lighten slightly. I saw a flash of courage and pride that I can only say was the Veteran’s final gift to his loved ones — strength passed on through one final task. In that moment, as I knelt with a sacred flag, I was connected to the woman sitting in the chair before me. Race, age, gender, and everything else fell away. We were joined by the sacrifice of her loved one and her loss.

Then I rose, saluted, and withdrew with my team, leaving the family to make peace in these last moments. In our uniforms, moving with precision, directness, and care, the family of this Veteran saw one thing — the US Army saying goodbye to our comrade.

In the deep heart of Southern Alabama, I learned that loss and grief are the same regardless of who sits in the chair. I handed folded flags to the next-of-kin of all ages, races, and both genders. Mothers, wives, children, fathers, husbands…they all grieved the loss of their loved one.

On that day, I briefly experienced what it was like to feel different and out-of-place because of the color of my skin or my gender. For many, that experience is not brief, but rather daily. I also learned that finding connection through loss, and love, and service can break through fear.  I will forever remember and be grateful to the woman in the chair.