On the Spot

As submitted by Chaplain Andy Meverden to the May 2015 issue of Military Officer

Through his quick thinking – and his knowledge of military lore – a chaplain in the Army National Guard is able to keep a Vietnam veteran’s burial honors on track.

At the height of the war on terrorism, most military funeral honors for Army veterans were performed by the National Guard. As a Colorado Army National Guard chaplain, I often served as detail leader, folding and presenting the flag to the next of kin.

One day I arrived, per regulation, an hour before the inurnment of a Vietnam veteran. The funeral director pointed out the site of the columbarium and shared specific details of this ceremony. The decedent, a Denver native, had only one surviving brother, who was homeless and mentally ill. The funeral home had helped the brother prepare for the service with a shave, a haircut, and a new suit.

Our three-person team met at the columbarium, did our typical recon of the site, rehearsed the ceremony – including the start of taps (to verify the electronic bugle’s function) – and then stood ready as the small procession approached.

Another soldier and I retrieved the flag and urn from the lead vehicle, then led the small group to the veteran’s final resting place. Following the pastor’s remarks and prayer, we came to attention, saluted the flag in slow, ceremonial fashion, and waited for taps to play on the “e-bugle.”

Our “bugler” triggered the play button and raised the bugle to his lips. The first three slow, solemn notes played – then abruptly stopped! My eyes widened as I realized that despite our previous test, the bugle’s battery had failed.

There was no time to change batteries, so picking up where the bugle had stopped, I sang, “gone the sun/From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky/All is well, safely rest/God is nigh.”

Three seconds later, I lowered my salute. We stepped up and retrieved, unfolded, and refolded the flag. I turned to the brother and knelt to place the flag into his lap, saying, “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for the faithful and honorable service rendered by your brother.” Standing up, I offered a final slow salute, then bent down to offer my personal condolences.

With tears in his eyes, he grabbed my hand and said, “Thank you.” As I turned away, he stroked the flag tenderly.

Back at the parking area, the other two soldiers and I completed our after-action review. We all agreed on the importance of fresh batteries – and that memorizing the lyrics to taps wasn’t a bad idea!