A fitting and final salute for a WWII Vet

By Jeff Forster ’66

Special to LNP 11/11/2018

My father-in-law, Robert Miller, served as a reconnaissance photographer in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. He was stationed in England, the launch site for countless missions that helped map the crucial D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Like many veterans of any conflict, he never talked much about the war. He immersed himself instead in family life and in his work as a writer and photographer, first with LNP — he was a county editor at one point for the former Intelligencer Journal — and then with the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But he quietly took pride in his service and faithfully pulled his military jacket out of the closet to wear in the Columbia Memorial Day parade. At age 93, he served as the parade’s grand marshal, the native son riding shotgun in a sleek silver Corvette. We instructed him in the fine art of waving to the crowd. He nailed it.

At the time of that parade, Bob had been living on his own in Columbia for several years, a widower tending to a small and loyal herd of indoor and outdoor cats. He had the satisfaction of seeing his daughter, Cynthia, and granddaughters, Meredith and Hilary, grow up to become beautiful, brilliant women.

Age and illness finally caught up with him. He spent his last two years in an assisted living facility in Maytown and a skilled nursing home in Columbia. In both places, his status as a veteran was recognized and appreciated.

At the end of last June, a retired Navy pilot, Kenneth Smith, came to the nursing home, a Vet-to-Vet visit arranged through Hospice & Community Care of Lancaster. Kenneth, who had served during the Vietnam and Gulf wars, offered a heartfelt tribute to Bob’s service and presented him with a pin, a certificate, a star from an American flag and a parting salute. Though Bob’s awareness was severely dimmed by advancing dementia, he understood enough in that moment to return a proper salute.

More recognition was to come. When Bob passed away just two weeks later on July 18, at age 96, we learned that he was eligible for burial with military honors. The U.S. Department of Defense has such a program, made possible by a federal law that took effect in 2000, known simply but elegantly as “Honoring Those Who Served.” Locally, the Red Rose Veterans Honor Guard was two years ahead of the feds, starting its own program here in 1998.

En route from the funeral mass at St. Peter Catholic Church in Columbia to the burial site, the motorcade paused briefly in front of Bob’s former home on Ironville Pike — a nice touch. In a small town, such minor but memorable flourishes are possible.

Just up the road, where work was grinding away on the controversial Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, the crew members stopped what they were doing, took off their hard hats, bowed their heads and placed their hands over their hearts as the procession moved past. We cried.

A proper burial

Silver Spring Cemetery commands a sweeping and tranquil view of cornfields and rolling farmland across a seemingly limitless horizon. A good choice for a final resting place.

Waiting for us there was a contingent from Red Rose Veterans Honor Guard and the Vet 21 Salute Honor Guard, men and women in uniform standing crisply at attention. As the pallbearers carried the coffin to the gravesite, clouds rolled in. Distant thunder rumbled. And the skies opened.

In the drenching rain, a detail of soldiers fired a volley of three rifle shots each. In the downpour, a lone bugler played taps.

Two active-duty soldiers from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in Indiantown Gap performed a ritual repeated countless times in cemeteries across the nation, folding an American flag into a perfect triangle and presenting it to Cynthia, Bob’s only child.

Next, an officer placed in her hand three shell casings from the rifle volley. “These represent duty, honor and country, and are given to you in appreciation for your father’s service to his country,” he said

For all of us in the family, and friends who attended, the ceremony was deeply moving and meaningful, all of it thoughtfully arranged and coordinated with the local veterans’ groups by Workman Funeral Homes.

Red Rose Veterans Honor Guard rendered honors in 346 funerals in Lancaster County in 2017 — virtually one every day — and more than 300 as of mid-October this year. Vet 21 Salute Honor Guard, which performs honors about 200 times a year, has been active in the Lancaster and Berks County area since 2010. These two worthy nonprofit organizations, energized by devoted volunteers, work together to provide a fitting send-off for their fellow veterans.

Weeks later, I found out that when a veteran dies at a Veterans Affairs hospital in the U.S., the deceased is placed on a gurney and the body draped with an American flag. As the family escorts the gurney through the hospital corridors, a bugler plays taps. Everyone in the hospital — patients, staff and visitors alike — stops to pay their respects. They call it the “final salute.”

It is these rituals of life and death that carry so much meaning for us. Duty, honor, country, yes. But also respect, admiration, affection — and gratitude.

At a time when there is so much noise and discord in American life, it is reassuring to know that we can come together, quietly and well, in an expression of thanks to those who have served their community and their country, quietly and well. Doesn’t it bring out the very best in all of us?

WWII

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