Accepting the Folded Flag

Accepting the Folded Flag

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

Accepting the Folded Flag

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, “What are you going through?”

Simone Weil

I have watched them fold the flag more times than I can remember. The first time, I stood stiffly, noticing the mechanical movements of the navy honor guardsmen flanking the grave site as they lifted the flag from the casket and began to fold it into a tight triangle. Their practiced, white-gloved hands moved quickly to manipulate the fabric and smooth potential wrinkles, passing the thickening shape down the line of men, until all I could see were the bright white stars on the blue background. The men were meticulous with their movements, careful not to let the sacred banner touch the ground. The leader of the guard stepped forward to accept the finished triangle from the two men who gripped it so somberly at the end of the lines. He inspected the angles and tucked the loose end under the last fold to secure it. Then he walked slowly to face the petite woman shrouded in symbolic black.

Nelly, my dearest friend, stood stiffly, shoulders taut with the weight of the occasion, but her chin held high. Her eyes were swollen and dark from a week of sleepless nights and endless crying. With her long hair hanging loose, she looked beautiful in spite of her overwhelming sadness, radiating strength for her young sons, who stood on either side of her.

As the guardsman approached, she squeezed the two hands held in her own and then let them drop out of her grasp to accept the flag offered to her. Her eyes met mine for a moment, and a current passed between us. Neither of us could believe that this husband, father, best friend, lover and hero had been reduced to a folded flag. Her hands shook. I wanted to reach out and take the flag for her, to share her pain so that she would not have to bear it alone. She looked down at the flag and buried her face in the fabric, weeping softly but openly.

“Mama?” whimpered three-year-old Chris, pulling at his mother’s arm in confusion. Nelly’s sister immediately scooped up the child and rocked him gently from side to side while whispering softly in his ear. Benjamin, who was five and understood more than his little brother, leaned against his mother and began to cry.

We stood at attention as a bugler on a distant hill began to play the lonesome strains of “Taps.” I could not pull my eyes away from mother and children. Both the boys flinched and Chris began to cry when the riflemen on the opposite hill raised their guns and fired. Three rounds of seven shots invaded the silence in the customary twenty-one-gun salute to the honor of a fallen warrior. As the last notes of the bugle echoed in the air and the smoke drifted into the blue afternoon sky, feelings of sadness and pride settled over the crowd gathered at the grave site.

The sound of aircraft engines filled the air. A hush fell over the crowd. All eyes scanned the sky for the planes we knew would arrive momentarily. The four A-6 Intruders, flying in the shape of an arrowhead, moved in to fly over the crowd and grave site below. When they were directly overhead, the jet positioned slightly back and right of the lead broke formation and flew up and away from the group, disappearing deep into the heavens. The remaining three jets flew over our heads in the symbolic “missing man” formation, leaving the gap between them open. It was a maneuver used only as a salute to fallen aviators. Yet another hero had gone.

This was the first of many families I would stand with at Arlington National Cemetery. Through almost nineteen years as a naval aviator’s wife, I have watched widows, children, parents and siblings reluctantly reach out to accept that folded symbol of our nation’s honor and service. I have seen a young wife collapse in sobs, a confused toddler salute the bugler and a teenager march somberly behind a horse and carriage carrying the flag-draped casket of his dad, his greatest hero.

Out of that overwhelming despair, new heroes have arisen. Unsung by politicians, newspapers and medals of honor, Nelly and others like her have steeled their emotions and mustered their courage to face the future. They have protected the memory and honor of that symbolic flag, and passed it on to their children in spite of lonely days, sleepless nights and painful insensitivities from the world around them. They have emerged from their grief to provide homes full of love, joy and security for their children, a testament to the power of God and the human spirit.

For all those who have accepted the folded flag, I thank you for your sacrifice. I thank you for demonstrating daily acts of heroism that few appreciate or even recognize. You are a gentle reminder that, though the sun may sometimes set with glorious colors, plunging the world into darkness, the hope of a new and brilliant dawn is just beyond the horizon.

Saundra L. Butts

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