It was an unseasonably cold Memorial Day 1991 — the gray morning sky blanketing a dewy ground. We sat in white chairs beneath a tent near an oversized mausoleum. I wore a red shirt and blue jean skirt and my legs threatened goose bumps against the dreary chill. The somber cast of the day kept my questions unasked. I stood beside my grandpa, a veteran of the Navy, as the sound of “Taps” drifted into play in increasingly strong tones – slicing through the silent gray like a beacon of reverence extending to the heavens.
Those warm, somber notes characterize so many things about our soldiers: they play “taps” at days’ end and, most notably, at the funerals of the fallen. A flag-draped coffin ignites a flurry of emotion overwhelmed with profound respect. The brisk, efficient clicks of a rifle salute being fired punctuate a tender moment. Men of valor are staunchly poised at the edges of a mourning family. The serviceman standing guard come because of the common bond of duty, honor, and respect they have for the fallen. They may not have met a particular soldier in life, but he is their brother that day.
Former Marine Sergeant Brandon Nordhoff has helped lay many of his unknown brothers to their rest. After his deployment to Iraq in 2003, Nordhoff began volunteering to appear at the funerals of soldiers. The U.S. military honors ceremony includes an honor guard detail and according to law, the honor detail must at least perform a ceremony that includes the folding and presenting of the American flag to the next of kin and the playing of “Taps.” At the funerals of 20 Midwest soldiers, Nordhoff presented the American flag to mothers, wives and kin.
“We didn’t know them but you might shed a tear because you feel a brother hood with them,” said Nordhoff. “Then you hear ‘“Taps,”’ which is probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard.”
Flag presentation is one of the most sacred moments of the ceremony, performed at the end, and presented, “…on behalf of the President and a grateful nation.” Grieving mothers and wives often define the war at home. When a soldier presents the flag to these women or next of kin, they embody the absence of the fallen.
At the gravesite, the military chaplain will perform a service committing the deceased to the earth and offer prayers and benediction. “The focus of a military funeral is to express gratitude from a grateful nation for the service of the veteran,” said Lorenzo York, assistant for public affairs for the Navy chief of Chaplains.
Nordhoff said military funerals are – by tradition — different from civilian funerals. He initially volunteered after being involved in Sen. Richard Lugar (R.-Ind.)’s Veterans History Project, where he interviewed veterans about their war time service.
“Another reason [he volunteered] was because my family was not close to my Grandfather, who was a WW II vet, and I always wanted to hear his stories and never could,” said Nordhoff. “Because of him and others, I honor veterans and appreciate their service.”
Those services that Nordhoff participated in included soldiers and veterans of all ages. He said attending a younger soldier’s funerals were the most difficult. With the older soldiers, Nordhoff said family members were happy they had lived a full life.
“For younger people it is much harder because the death is unexpected,” said Nordhoff. “One would almost choke up on the words they are handing the American flag to a mother or father.”
It is in these rituals that families receive some small solace, and the reassurance that though their loved one may be gone, they – the survivors – are a part of the military community, that family of millions, for the rest of their lives.
After he completed his time in the Marines, Nordhoff decided to take on new role in public service. He now works in Washington, DC for the Secret Service. Many former military men and women join the police force as an extension of their dedication to protecting and serving our nation. Nordhoff said the Secret Service is full of veterans and many plan to wear their ribbons and awards on their police uniforms on Monday to commemorate Memorial Day.
Most of us don’t do more than take the day off on Memorial Day. But each of us owes the fallen the greatest debt: it is to them we owe our allegiance because they have preserved our freedom. Every Memorial Day we owe them a small prayer, and to remember them, one and all.