First published in 2016, this piece is as relevant and moving now as it was then.
Capt. Loyal Ray Blackwood, U. S. Navy, was laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on a sweltering day last summer (2016).
Born in 1925 in Alabama, he enlisted in the Navy in 1942, later received his commission, and served aboard the USS Compton in the South Pacific where he and his crewmates provided anti-submarine and anti-aircraft support during the Battle of Okinawa.
After World War II, Blackwood earned a law degree, married Sue Jones, and joined the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He retired after 30 years of active duty. He was a loyal and devoted churchman, played golf, loved watching the Crimson Tide play football, and sang in a barbershop quartet.
I served as the senior escort commander at his dignified funeral last summer. Wearing my ceremonial full dress (choker) white uniform, with sword and black mourning sash, large medals and white gloves, I had the honor of being the senior military officer at the time-honored event—one of over two dozen at Arlington that day.
After the church ceremony, I walked alongside the petty officer in charge, and in front of the horse-drawn caisson that carried Blackwood to his final resting place in Section 8 of the hallowed cemetery. It was 91 degrees and extremely humid.
When we finally got to the gravesite, following a prayer, and after the 21-gun salute, I received the carefully folded American flag from the head casket bearer, walked over to Mrs. Blackwood, kneeled in front of her, and, with a lump in my throat, said, “On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
With tears welling up in her eyes, she nodded and whispered, “Thank you.” I stood, stepped back one step, and rendered a solemn hand salute for seven seconds, and marched off.
Five months later, last Saturday, I found myself back at Arlington National Cemetery on a cold, icy morning in Washington, D.C.
My family and I joined my daughter’s scout troop and tens of thousands of other people to lay fresh Christmas wreathes on the tombstones of the over 400,000 active-duty service members, veterans, and their families laid to rest in our most revered military burying ground.
Volunteers ranged from very young children to very senior citizens, Americans and foreigners, along with active-duty U.S. service members and their counterparts from other countries, some in full uniform.
Men, women, and children of every race, religion, political persuasion, and walk of life gathered in the freezing rain and cold to pay respect to those loyal men and women who served and now lay in peaceful repose at Arlington.
As we bundled up for the morning ritual, I reminded the girls of the significance of what they were about to do. As a third generation naval officer, and the son of a World War II vet, I thought they should know why what they were about to do was important.
I reminded them that it happened to be the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest and most brutal battles in Europe, pitting a quarter-million German troops in the Ardennes against Lt. General George Patton’s battered divisions. I explained how Adolf Hitler’s counteroffensive ultimately failed, but it cost the U.S. Army over 100,000 casualties.
When we got to Arlington and walked into the cemetery, we walked to the first of many 18-wheeler semis loaded with boxes of fresh wreathes, each of which had a red ribbon tied into a bow at the top. The girls walked up to the back of the open trucks, stuck out their arms, and a volunteer placed a pine-scented wreath on each tiny arm.
We were directed to a section of Arlington, and we showed the girls how to place the wreaths, gently, at an angle, leaning up against the tombstone, with the red bow at the top.
Some girls, mimicking other adults, placed the wreaths gingerly against the white stones, stood silently, and made the sign of the cross. Others, as they laid the sticky pine wreath against the stone, said the name of the fallen out loud, as other adults were doing around them.
Thinking about Blackwood and the funeral last summer, I told the girls that each tombstone told a story about a real person, where and how they served, and sometimes who they were married to.
Inspired by Blackwood, I challenged each of the girls to tell the story of one of the fallen. One by one, the girls found a tombstone, kneeled down, and told the rest of their troop the story, which went something like this:
This is the story of Private First Class … he was born on … he fought in World War II, earned the Purple Heart, and was married to …
At one tombstone, one of the girls observed that the soldier’s wife died on her birthday, at the age of 90, and remarked, “That is so sad. But she lived a long, good life.
In this fast-paced world in which we live, with the 24/7 news cycle and the internet, the elation or depression experienced by the recent national election, and now the run-up to Christmas and Hanukkah, it is really difficult to step back and be thankful for the most important things in our lives—family, faith, friendship, and the profound blessing of living in the United States and being an American citizen.
To those who have worn her uniform, and those who wear it proudly today—thank you.
And thank you, Blackwood, and the millions like you, who did your duty with loyalty and honor.