On October 7th, 2002, I returned to Los Angeles from Arlington National Cemetery where we’d interred my father, 2nd Lt. William Joseph Whittle, who died from what may have been sheer joy during a fishing trip in Canada.
My dad served in the US Army in Germany, from 1944 through 1946. He was an intelligence officer, and was responsible for recording the time of death of the convicted War Criminals at Nuremburg after the war. He saw them hanged — he stood there with a stopwatch. He was 21 years old.
My father spent two years in the U.S. Military. He spent a lifetime in the corporate world. After twenty years as a world-class hotel manager, turning entire properties from liabilities into assets, he was let go without so much as a thank-you dinner or a handshake. Twenty years of service. He was a four-star general in the corporate world for two decades, and that was his reward.
Monday afternoon, at 1 pm, I stood underneath the McClellan arch at ANC. There were 13 family members there. There were also 40 men in uniform. I was stunned.
They took my dad’s ashes, in what looked like a really nice cigar box (what a little box for such a big man, I thought at that moment), and placed it in what looked like a metallic coffin on the back of a horse-drawn caisson. His ashes were handled by other twenty-one year old men, men as young as he had been, men whose fathers were children when my dad was in uniform. Everything was inspected, checked, and handled with awesome, palpable, radiating reverence and respect.
As we walked behind the caisson, the band played not a dirge, but a march… a tune that left me searching for the right adjective, which I didn’t find until the flight home. It was triumphal. It was the sound of Caesar entering Rome; the sound of a hero coming home. It was the only time during the service that I really began to cry.
My father received a military funeral: the folded flag, the 21 gun salute, the honor guard, and a Chaplain named Crisp who declared a grateful nation was welcoming their brother William home to rest among heroes.
My dad served for two years. He wrote on the back of his Army officer class graduation photo that he expected to die fighting for his country within a few months. Most everybody who signed his photo wrote the same thing.
The chaplain said, looking my stepmom in the eyes like this was the first time he’d ever said the words, that the men and women buried here had agreed to lay down their lives for their country and each other, and that THIS, not rank, or social status, or length in service, is what entitled them to be buried in America’s most sacred ground.
Before the ceremony, I was looking at the headstones, and it’s sad how each area of Arlington is like a forlorn vintage: here are buried the veterans who died around 1995, there is the 1982 pasture, the mid-fifties crop over on yonder hill. And standing between a Major and a Lt. Colonel, I saw a headstone for a PFC who was born in 1979, the year I entered college, and who had died in 1998. This young man, not even twenty, couldn’t have been in the service for more than a few months, and yet there he lay, with the same headstone as colonels and generals and the many, many sergeants that cover those fields.
That is American honor, and nowhere else in the world does it exist in such a naked, magnificent form. Each of these men and women, this band of brothers, receiving the same heartfelt respect. For my father, who died at age 77, it was the honoring of a contract he had signed more than half a century before, defending Europe and helping bring those criminal bastards to justice. It was a contract paid in full, one that has given my family and me an indescribable sense of comfort and pride.
As we were leaving, it dawned on me that the ugly brown-grey building I had been looking at across the road looked suddenly familiar. I asked the funeral coordinator if that was, in fact, the Pentagon, and he replied that it was… indeed, it was the side that the aircraft struck.
On September 11, 2001, this man was about to conduct a morning service on a hill about 1/2 mile from that brown-grey wall. He heard a roar and a whine, saw a silver blur fifty feet above his head, and watched as a 757 immolated itself against the side of the Pentagon. It was my unpleasant duty to inform him that a book claiming that the plane crash had never happened, but was rather an intelligence service plot, had become one of the best-selling books in France, the country my father and millions of other Americans were willing to die for in order to liberate as young men.
My mother remains, to this day, a proud British Subject, the daughter of a man Awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1954 for his service in the Royal Marines. She, my grandfather and uncle were nearly murdered by Egyptian mobs during the Suez crisis, and she is fiercely proud of both her native country and the one she married into. Yet she said that nowhere in the world do ordinary servicemen or women receive anything like this level of honor and respect and reverence, and she is right. All nations honor their generals and heroes. This nation honors privates and sergeants in indistinguishable fashion.
Walking behind the flag-draped caisson of an Army 2nd Lieutenant that day, I felt that my father was receiving the funeral of the President of the United States. And, number of people on the parade route aside, as a matter of fact, he was.