Beyond the Folded Flag

A weeping widow receiving a folded flag from white-gloved hands of a soldier is a common image we see in Memorial Day ads.  "From a grateful nation" are the words uttered with quiet respect before he steps back into formation beside the grave of a fallen "brother/sister."  Next to the widow sit young children looking sweet, innocent, and lost.  It is an uncomfortable representation to look at for long, so we shake our heads and turn our eyes away.  "What a sad shame," we think.  "She will one day find another to love," some wish.  "We will never forget," we speak with confidence.  "What a waste of a young life," someone else may quip.

Taps is played on the bugle, gentle crying is heard through the congregation, and the gathered mourners disperse as the family is driven home in a black Cadillac.  And that, as they say, is that.  Yes, it was sad but now it's over.  But there is more to the story beyond the folded flag.  In fact, the story of a soldier's life never ends at the cemetery.

Memorial Day is not just about the death of a US service member.  It is a day to celebrate their life, acknowledge their contribution, and honor their continuing legacy.  It is a day so sacred that despite our political and religious differences, we would be hard-pressed to find a single citizen to besmirch its sanctity.  The newspapers are full of sale ads and yard sales and community festivals to enjoy before you head out to the beach or bar-b-que.  All this Americana flag-waving is wonderful and a feel-good holiday but it does not fully capture our "beyond the folded flag" tradition.

Each year, mourners gather in Washington, DC for a national grief seminar and honor ceremony via the esteemed program appropriately named "TAPS."  It is my great privilege to attend this gathering as a volunteer and to hear the most amazing stories from loved ones of our Troops.  Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (http://www.taps.org/) was founded by veteran and military widow Bonnie Carroll.  What began in 1994 as a needed supporting friendship group for Bonnie and the other wives of the crew members lost during a training mission has grown into a nationally recognized non-military, non-political, non-denominational, non-profit organization.  Their mission statement reads: "TAPS offers immediate and long-term emotional help, hope, and healing to anyone grieving the death of a loved one in military service to America, regardless of their relationship to the deceased or the circumstances of the death." 

This year TAPS hosted 2,000-plus attendees for a four-day seminar offering counseling sessions, meal fellowships, and friendship bonding activities.  Children ages infant to teens enjoy a high quality program called "Good Grief Camp" where each child is paired with a military member "big brother/sister" for the weekend.  This unique population of military family members and children live out the stories of the "beyond" of that folded flag each and every day of the year.

The stories of faithful duty and the faces of youthful beauty simply take my breath away as I listen to a mother tell of how her boy went from fresh out of high school to Marine boot camp and into Iraq.  She is so proud, so patriotic, and yet the depth of grief leaves us both without words and we sit in silence holding hands.  Another mother asked me to pray Psalm 23 tonight on behalf of her son.  She raised him to repeat the Scriptures each night before sleeping.  Sean gave his life for Freedom's Holy Light while standing guard duty in Afghanistan.  

A Native American father placed the published story of his "Nathan" into my hands.  "Distant Thunder" (Nathan's tribal name) was a third generation warrior who left us on a Thanksgiving day.  Dad is a Vietnam veteran who suffers PTSD and parental grief.  I remember Nathan when I hear rumbling summer thunderclouds and I pause to give thanks for an Indian patriot.  Questions about suffering are often asked, the answers both feared and needed.  Beautiful "Lucky," a soldier and a mother, left behind a daughter in the care of her parents.  Lucky served in Afghanistan but returned home with a deadly lung disease.  Her father has since passed on from "a broken heart" says the mother who, though not born in America, shared her only child with this country's military.  "Jessica" also came home but quickly succumbed to leukemia, leaving behind her children in the care of her husband and her parents.  Girls, seemingly way too young to be wives -- much less already widows -- gather for coffee and chat while their little ones play...and all miss the husbands and fathers.  Young husbands, grand-parents, siblings, cousins, and buddies come not knowing quite what to expect but return home refreshed and glad they came.

At lunch, I sat beside a very quiet 30-year Marine veteran.  "I am here with my daughter," he tells me in monotone as he pushes away his meal, uneaten.  The daughter brought her teenager with them for a family bereavement retreat.  Her husband served for twenty-five years but died just months short of his retirement.  They had just bought a new house, not even yet furnished.  The house is now for sale.  She must move to be near her father to help raise a teenager.

And there are the stories of those whose pain was just too great to bear.  They made it home physically only to leave this world by suicide.  This is a special kind of grief; the circumstances so difficult to speak of by the family that many will never share with others.  This past decade has seen a reportedly record number of losses from suicide.  The walking wounded, they are called.

There is indeed more beyond the folded flag.  And it is sobering and humbling.  This Memorial Day (after you bargain-hunt, beach, and bar-b-que) please take the time to: 

STOP to remember...STAND in respect...SALUTE with patriotism...SILENCE your busy-ness...SEE the legacies beyond the folded flags...SPEAK your prayers of gratitude...and SERVE to honor their sacrifice.

May we as American citizens truly be "the grateful nation" beyond the folded flag.
A weeping widow receiving a folded flag from white-gloved hands of a soldier is a common image we see in Memorial Day ads.  "From a grateful nation" are the words uttered with quiet respect before he steps back into formation beside the grave of a fallen "brother/sister."  Next to the widow sit young children looking sweet, innocent, and lost.  It is an uncomfortable representation to look at for long, so we shake our heads and turn our eyes away.  "What a sad shame," we think.  "She will one day find another to love," some wish.  "We will never forget," we speak with confidence.  "What a waste of a young life," someone else may quip.

Taps is played on the bugle, gentle crying is heard through the congregation, and the gathered mourners disperse as the family is driven home in a black Cadillac.  And that, as they say, is that.  Yes, it was sad but now it's over.  But there is more to the story beyond the folded flag.  In fact, the story of a soldier's life never ends at the cemetery.

Memorial Day is not just about the death of a US service member.  It is a day to celebrate their life, acknowledge their contribution, and honor their continuing legacy.  It is a day so sacred that despite our political and religious differences, we would be hard-pressed to find a single citizen to besmirch its sanctity.  The newspapers are full of sale ads and yard sales and community festivals to enjoy before you head out to the beach or bar-b-que.  All this Americana flag-waving is wonderful and a feel-good holiday but it does not fully capture our "beyond the folded flag" tradition.

Each year, mourners gather in Washington, DC for a national grief seminar and honor ceremony via the esteemed program appropriately named "TAPS."  It is my great privilege to attend this gathering as a volunteer and to hear the most amazing stories from loved ones of our Troops.  Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (http://www.taps.org/) was founded by veteran and military widow Bonnie Carroll.  What began in 1994 as a needed supporting friendship group for Bonnie and the other wives of the crew members lost during a training mission has grown into a nationally recognized non-military, non-political, non-denominational, non-profit organization.  Their mission statement reads: "TAPS offers immediate and long-term emotional help, hope, and healing to anyone grieving the death of a loved one in military service to America, regardless of their relationship to the deceased or the circumstances of the death." 

This year TAPS hosted 2,000-plus attendees for a four-day seminar offering counseling sessions, meal fellowships, and friendship bonding activities.  Children ages infant to teens enjoy a high quality program called "Good Grief Camp" where each child is paired with a military member "big brother/sister" for the weekend.  This unique population of military family members and children live out the stories of the "beyond" of that folded flag each and every day of the year.

The stories of faithful duty and the faces of youthful beauty simply take my breath away as I listen to a mother tell of how her boy went from fresh out of high school to Marine boot camp and into Iraq.  She is so proud, so patriotic, and yet the depth of grief leaves us both without words and we sit in silence holding hands.  Another mother asked me to pray Psalm 23 tonight on behalf of her son.  She raised him to repeat the Scriptures each night before sleeping.  Sean gave his life for Freedom's Holy Light while standing guard duty in Afghanistan.  

A Native American father placed the published story of his "Nathan" into my hands.  "Distant Thunder" (Nathan's tribal name) was a third generation warrior who left us on a Thanksgiving day.  Dad is a Vietnam veteran who suffers PTSD and parental grief.  I remember Nathan when I hear rumbling summer thunderclouds and I pause to give thanks for an Indian patriot.  Questions about suffering are often asked, the answers both feared and needed.  Beautiful "Lucky," a soldier and a mother, left behind a daughter in the care of her parents.  Lucky served in Afghanistan but returned home with a deadly lung disease.  Her father has since passed on from "a broken heart" says the mother who, though not born in America, shared her only child with this country's military.  "Jessica" also came home but quickly succumbed to leukemia, leaving behind her children in the care of her husband and her parents.  Girls, seemingly way too young to be wives -- much less already widows -- gather for coffee and chat while their little ones play...and all miss the husbands and fathers.  Young husbands, grand-parents, siblings, cousins, and buddies come not knowing quite what to expect but return home refreshed and glad they came.

At lunch, I sat beside a very quiet 30-year Marine veteran.  "I am here with my daughter," he tells me in monotone as he pushes away his meal, uneaten.  The daughter brought her teenager with them for a family bereavement retreat.  Her husband served for twenty-five years but died just months short of his retirement.  They had just bought a new house, not even yet furnished.  The house is now for sale.  She must move to be near her father to help raise a teenager.

And there are the stories of those whose pain was just too great to bear.  They made it home physically only to leave this world by suicide.  This is a special kind of grief; the circumstances so difficult to speak of by the family that many will never share with others.  This past decade has seen a reportedly record number of losses from suicide.  The walking wounded, they are called.

There is indeed more beyond the folded flag.  And it is sobering and humbling.  This Memorial Day (after you bargain-hunt, beach, and bar-b-que) please take the time to: 

STOP to remember...STAND in respect...SALUTE with patriotism...SILENCE your busy-ness...SEE the legacies beyond the folded flags...SPEAK your prayers of gratitude...and SERVE to honor their sacrifice.

May we as American citizens truly be "the grateful nation" beyond the folded flag.

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