Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The American Flag Through the Eyes of a Veteran

The phone call had surprised me. Jerry’s brother, Claude, was saying that he was passing through town on the way to his weekend guard duty. Could he come by and visit with us? “Sure, that would be fine, but Jerry is out of town, gone to a training class for his new job,” I answered. He said he would still like to come by to see the kids. I answered his knock at the door, and thought how much more he looked like his dad. Usually he looked so much more like Jerry, but age was favoring his dad now that he was over 40. Claude, Jr. was the oldest of the seven brothers and sisters. Jerry was in the middle somewhere.

The kids were clinging to his pants legs and he carried Gloria riding on his foot as he made his way to the sofa. He hadn’t been able to get here for Jerry’s retirement at the base. No one in the family had made it. It had been just the guys in the squadron and me. We wisely chose not to bring the girls and baby Lee. I had driven to the base by myself, and Jerry’s commander and I tried to talk him out of retirement and back into another tour of duty. The recent promotion to Sr. Master Sergeant had come with a remote tour overseas. Jerry was the most committed family man I had ever known, and he was not going to leave his family. I knew that I was not going to the island of Guam with a newborn and two little girls. Retirement was Jerry’s only option in his way of thinking. The only thing I remember from the ceremony was fighting back tears of regret for the shortened military career of a man who had never planned to retire less than Chief Master Sergeant. I knew that the regret would eat him alive from within and that I would be the reason for it. I vaguely remember seeing him receive the flag that had flown over the Capitol in Washington D.C., which was provided by our state representative. We sort of knew him because his right-hand-man was an active member of our church.

“Oh, I want to show you Jerry’s flag!” I said to Claude, as I rushed down the hallway to get it from the bedroom where it was mounted in a triangular display case. I took it out, and said, “It flew over the Capitol, you know.” As I turned to face Claude, he stood to his full height and reached his arms forward to receive the American flag. As I walked across the room toward him, there was a hollow ringing sound in my ears. I heard my voice, as if it were very far away. I didn’t have time to think about what I was saying. My eyes locked with those of my brother-in-law and the world blurred into slow motion. I watched his face as the flag slowly passed from my hands to his. I saw his eyes drop from my face to the stripes of red and white and stars on a field of blue. Somehow I knew that I would never see this man again. I swallowed hard, and I forced the dark, bitter-strong thought from my mind. He was beaming with pride and his eyes glistened as he looked at this precious symbol of the freedom he had fought for in Viet Nam. I was faint and nausea was rising in my throat as the brown carpet swirled at my feet.

Jerry came home that night and I made my voice light and unconcerned as I told him how Claude had played with the children, and that I hoped he didn’t mind that I had taken the flag out of the case to show it to his brother.  When the phone call came from their sister three days later, I was not even surprised. I drove out to the base, and I wept as I told Jerry that his big brother, Claude, had died. He didn’t seem to understand what I was saying at first, and then he put his hand on his forehead and sank back in the chair at this desk. I never told him of the slow-motion premonition. I don’t recall ever telling anyone at all.

We drove to the family hometown in north Alabama. It didn’t occur to us to drive over to the base where Claude had been serving weekend guard duty, although it was only a couple of hours from our house. When we arrived with all the children in tow, Grandpa’s house was full of family. As an only-child, this big family had taken some getting used to for me. We sat in the kitchen with the rest of the family trying to comfort their daddy. He was a man of very few words, and there were no words at all for this day. Someone finally said that he wanted his oldest boy brought home, and that it just wasn’t fair to have to wait a week for the funeral service. I didn’t fully understand, but I knew something was not happening the way it should be. Why would they wait a week to have the service? The sisters put together an explanation about the confusion that was delaying the body being shipped home. “See, Claude, Jr. was in the Army Guard, but they sent his troop to work at the Air Force Base in Florida,” the sisters explained. “The Army has no control over when the Air Force will release the body,” they continued, “and Daddy is upset about it.” 

I walked to the phone and said, “I need to make a few calls, ok?” Our church office had the phone number for our state representative’s right-hand-man. After thanking him for sending Jerry’s retirement flag, I told him about the circumstances we were facing. I explained that Jerry’s brother’s body was being held at the base at Eglin and the Air Force wouldn’t release it.” 

“Do you know where I am?” this friend-of-our-family asked. “And, do you know who is right here with me?” he continued. I had no idea that he and our state representative were at that very moment at Eglin Air Force Base. The number given to me by the church secretary had been forwarded to a meeting room directly across the street from the office where the decision would be made to release the body of my husband’s brother that same afternoon. 

How marvelous are His ways! We all acknowledged that God had indeed intervened to unravel the red tape on our behalf.

"O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways untraceable!" 
Romans 11:33

LORD, thank you for the riches you give us through your wisdom. You know what we need even before we experience the loss and sorrow of grief. Keep our tender hearts in your care always. In Jesus' name, Amen.

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