29 April 2012

War...and Peace, Part 5

If you've never planned a funeral before it pretty much goes like this: you cry your eyes out for about half an hour as you talk to the funeral director, you manage to pick out the day/time/location for the funeral, pick out a casket to bury your loved one in, and you somehow tell them enough information about the deceased so they can write an obituary (if you choose to have one). That's how it's supposed to happen.

For us, it was different from the norm because we were burying a veteran, so there was the added bonus of having a military funeral. Or so we thought.

We were informed by the funeral home that because my brother didn't die as a direct result from combat (i.e. - he wasn't shot or blown up overseas), that he was not eligible for a full military funeral. The problem with this is we wanted a full military funeral, and because he died from cancer that was proven to be a result of his service in the military, we felt that it was the least the government could do.

And so, it was time for the real battle to begin.

We made countless phone calls to every single person who had any say in how things are run in the state of South Carolina. We had friends of friends make calls to people who we thought might have connections to the inner-workings of the government. We had people posting to Facebook asking everyone they knew to call anyone they could to help us out, all to no avail. They weren't going to budge.

That's when we went on the news.

Someone in our community contacted the local news and told them the story, and they came to my parents' house to do a story on my brother and our fight to give him the funeral he deserved. They talked to my parents and my wife (I refused to go on tv because I couldn't bring myself to do it at the time) and aired the special the night before the funeral as a last ditch effort to convince the people in charge of the situation to make an exception for my brother.

After the news crew left, it was time for us to get ready for the wake, which is never an enjoyable task. It's even more difficult when it's one of your family members because that means you have to get there early to view the body to make sure everything is in order. That's the second hardest part of the process: the first time you see the body and know that it's not a person anymore.

Viewing the body was definitely an experience I will never forget for as long as I walk this earth. Seeing him lying there peacefully - knowing the personal hell he had been through for the previous 12 months of his life was finally over -  was strangely relieving to me. I could feel his peace, and for the first time - if only for a brief moment - I was okay with what was happening.

We buried him in his military uniform. We felt it was the best thing to do for him, because we felt that's what he would have wanted. One benefit to doing this was allowing everyone to see all the medals and badges that he had earned during his service, and having people who knew what each badge symbolized tell us what they all meant. We learned a lot about him through this, and we discovered that he had done a lot more for our country than we thought he had.

For example, we learned that he won not one, but two Purple Hearts. That's a big deal. It's an even bigger deal that he never spoke a word about them. It's a sign of his true character. He was more concerned about others to the point where he wouldn't even brag about himself when he had something worth bragging about. Not very many people can say that. (I sure as hell know I can't.)

The wake was inspiring to me when I saw just how many people showed up to pay their respects to my brother for his sacrifice and for his service in the military. I felt like I shook a million hands and hugged a million people that night. One of the most awesome feelings I got from being at the wake was from meeting a lady who said she saw our story on the news and felt compelled to come pay her respects to the family. It was an unbelievable feeling knowing that there still are people out there who appreciate the sacrifices that members of our military make each and every day, and that's one of the few things that helped me get through the tragedy of losing him. I knew that his death was not in vain, and it did bring a feeling of peace to my soul.

We left the wake and returned to my parents' house, and sometime shortly after we arrived we learned that arrangements had been made for a full military funeral. We were thankful to everyone who had joined together to help us get what we felt he deserved, and we were glad that we were going to be able to remember his life the way that we thought he would have wanted us to. (When you're planning a funeral, you'll take any small bits of relief you can get.)

We were also informed that there was a group of veterans who wanted to escort the hearse to the burial site via motorcycle, and even though my mother was uncomfortable with the idea at first (she didn't want to add any more attention to the funeral than it already had), we finally convinced her that it would be a good idea to include them. (Looking back on it now, I'm glad we did.)

As unusual as it is to say this, the funeral was absolutely beautiful. We arrived at the church for the first half of the service, and when we got out of the car we noticed two long lines of American flags leading up to the entrance. Each flag was held by one of the motorcycle veterans, and each veteran was standing at attention as we walked into the church. It was surreal. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life, and it's a shame that it took such circumstances as a funeral for me to be able to see it, but unfortunately that's the way it goes sometimes.

The first half of the funeral was the typical protocol that most everyone follows. There was a prayer, a few songs, a message about the deceased, and another prayer. When we got to the grave site, however, it was a completely different story.

If you've never been to a military funeral you are missing out on one of the most beautiful exercises known to man. They follow a strict protocol that is intense, respectful, honorable, and moving all at the same time. I've never seen anything like it before, and I don't think I'll ever see anything like it again. It was a beautiful day for a funeral (as macabre as that sounds), and luckily we didn't run into any major problems with the weather (aside from the sweltering heat that only the South can provide). There's a unique air of calm surrounding a military graveside service, like nothing else I've ever experienced before. And, as strange as it sounds, I felt at peace.

The 21 gun salute was breathtaking. Hearing the shots fired into the dense summer air knowing they were meant to honor and respect the life that my brother had lived and the sacrifice he had given sent chills down my spine that I still feel every time I hear the sound of a gun shot, even thought it's been a little over 9 months since the funeral.

It didn't become real to me until they lowered the vault into the ground. Up until that moment, it felt as if I were living in a dream that would eventually end. But, when they lower that burial vault into that cold pit of dirt six feet below the surface, the reality of what's happening hits you like a freight train, and all the weight of regrets that you had for things you'd done (or failed to do) starts to sink in. That's the hardest part of the process - the realization that your loved one is gone forever, never to return again.

It's a reality that I've been battling ever since the funeral, and it's a reality that I'm just now able to talk about (hence the long amount of time for me to tell this story). But, thankfully I'm at the point now where I can finally talk about it to an extent, because that's the first sign of moving on. I know that it's a process and it takes time and that I'm not going to be over this for a long while, and knowing is half the battle. The other half is going to be adjusting to life without him, because from time to time I still find myself wanting to send him a text message, or checking to see if he's on Facebook just to chat.

I know I'll never get to chat with him again (at least not in the physical sense), and that's the part that eats at my soul every single day. I've lost my best friend, but I know that I can at least take comfort in the fact that he's finally at peace. He's certainly earned it.

War is definitely hell, but peace is everlasting. My brother went through war, and because of that war was able to find his peace. Someday, I hope that I can too.

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