Some of us heard the news reports of the 31 American heroes lost when their Chinook was shot down in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011, but did any of us ever stop to honor them? So often we listen to the “top story,” shake our heads, curse the war and/or the politicians who put us there, and then move on with our day. Some of us might stop long enough to pray for the lost heroes and their families, but most of us just keep on going. For some of us, like me, the news strikes too close to home, so we try not to think about it. For others, honoring the departed service members becomes a necessary task. I’ve heard that the ultimate tribute is the military funeral and the pomp and circumstance attendant to it. Personally, and thankfully, I’ve never attended a military funeral, but it seems to me that the true tribute arises not from the family and friends and the full military honors. Rather, the true tribute originates in the hearts of those who never met the departed service member, yet they stop their daily activities to honor the fallen by standing silently in the hot sun or the freezing rain. Members of the Patriot Guard even ride motorcycles hundreds of miles to shield mourners from protestors and feel fortunate to have the opportunity.
On Thursday, August 18, 2011, I had the privilege to stand with hundreds of men and women in uniform, and many more civilians, to pay our respects to SPC Spencer Colson Duncan of Olathe, KS as he was laid to rest in Ft. Leavenworth National Cemetery. In Ft. Leavenworth tradition, the route to the cemetery was lined with those living, working, or attending school on post. Those on post at the expected 3:00 pm arrival time gathered along Grant Avenue. Students from Patton Junior High School, including my 8th grade son, Will, exited their building with teachers and stood just inside the gate. They would be the first people to welcome Duncan’s procession. About one half mile further down the road, students from the Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) and their instructors also gathered along Grant Ave. Mostly mid-level officers and combat veterans, these men and women from all branches of the service were joined by students visiting from other countries, staff of the college, and family members. From Patton to CGSC, Grant Avenue filled with men, women, and children: Men and women in an array of camouflage, staff members in suits and heels, moms pushing strollers, toddlers dancing through the crowd. August 18 was hot: 90 degrees and 97% humidity, but no one complained. In spite of the uncomfortable conditions and dark uniforms, people gathered politely and patiently, awaiting Duncan’s arrival. Three o’clock arrived and passed. People gazed at watches and questioned the remembered memos, yet no one moved. In fact, many more joined the crowd realizing that no, they weren’t too late to take part.
My husband and I arrived with these latecomers. We had just come from a luncheon in Kansas City where Steve had been the guest speaker. He spoke to the Navy League about his time in Afghanistan. I tuned out most of his presentation. I smiled politely, but I didn’t want to know. As we rushed to line up for SPC Duncan, I said a quick prayer of thanks for Steve’s safe return.
The crowd grew as the sun beat down. Finally, a muffled roar of motorcycles preceded a wave of whispers as word of the funeral procession’s arrival spread along the avenue. The procession was filled with family members and friends, and hundreds of Patriot Guard Riders. We felt the rumble of the Guard motorcycles long before we saw the group crest the hill south of our place in line. As the flashing lights of the police escort came into view, the crowd silenced, and those in uniform snapped to attention. Even the youngest children fell silent.
When the hearse approached, each service member saluted and held their position until the family and flag-bearing Patriot Guard motorcycles moved past. Steve stiffened into a statue next to me and nudged me with his elbow. I knew he was reminding me to take pictures, but I couldn’t bring myself to snap photos of a family in mourning. At the head of the procession, a photographer balanced through an open sun-roof. Clearly, the family wanted to commemorate the event, but “photographer” was not my role to play. Behind the photographer’s car rode an unending line of leather-clad motorcyclists. I recognized the Harleys and Hondas, but beyond that, they were only loud; reverberating through the trees as if they dared someone to speak or step out of line. As a limousine carrying SPC Duncan’s family passed us, I noticed that the rear windows were down. A perfectly-coiffed elderly lady, Duncan’s grandmother perhaps, sat at the window, smiling sadly and waving. She seemed to smile right at me, so I raised my hand and gently waved back. I’ve attended many events honoring our military; Veterans Day assemblies, Memorial Day ceremonies; but on that day, I was humbled by a grieving grandmother’s recognition of my efforts to honor her heroic grandson.
The crowd stayed along the route until the final police escort signaled the end of the procession, and then quietly returned to their day. I never met SPC Duncan, nor did I know his family, but I feel honored to have stood on Grant Ave. to remember his service and sacrifice. I doubt that our presence brought a sense of peace to his family and friends; in fact, we may have been a grim reminder of their new reality. But, in our reality, we were simply a grateful section of the military family: thankful for our own family members’ safety, but even more appreciative of the young men and women who are still willing to step up and risk their lives for our country. Thank you.