By Pastor Peter Rustico
On a warm, humid, July morning, we gathered around the last earthly remains of a young man from Ohio. He was the “all-American boy.” He had been the captain of his high school’s football and wrestling teams. He was a tall, good-looking young man with broad shoulders and an infectious smile. He joined the United States Marine Corps at age 19. At age 20, he married his high school sweetheart. Now at the age of 21 his earthly remains were about to be lowered into the sacred soil of Arlington National Cemetery, one of the places our nation lays its heroes to rest.
His earthly remains had been brought to that place with the greatest of care. His remains had been borne on a horse-drawn caisson, accompanied by a platoon of Marines as well as music from the Marine Corps Band, and carried to that burial site by six members of the Marine Corps Ceremonial Guard. Now as a Navy chaplain, it was my responsibility to lead the brief worship that would commend this young hero of our war in Afghanistan, to the care of a loving and gracious God.
As a parish pastor for more than twenty-nine years, and a chaplain in the United States Navy Reserve for more than twenty-seven years, I reached back to what I knew. We shared in some of the prayers that church has used for decades to provide comfort and hope in times of great loss. I read from the sacred scriptures, specifically Psalm 23 which calls to mind the faithfulness of the Good Shepherd, and John 14 which reminds us that “in my Father’s house are many rooms.”
In my brief homily at the gravesite I recalled the Marine Corps motto, semper fidelis, which means “always faithful”. I spoke of this young man’s faithfulness in doing what his country asked him to do in a far off land, carrying on the battle which began with the terrorist attacks on September 11. I recalled his faithfulness in performing the work he was doing on that fateful day in June, clearing a road of land mines, so that others could travel in safety. Finally I proclaimed the God we know in Jesus Christ, who exemplified the very meaning of “faithfulness” in his life, his death, and his rising from the dead. Our faithfulness as his people is built on his faithfulness as our hope for eternal life.
When the prayers of commendation and committal were concluded, the Marine platoon offered their rifle salute. The ceremonial guard folded the American flag with great dignity and precision while the bugler played “Taps,” and the gunnery sergeant presented the flag to the Marine’s young widow. After greeting the family for the last time, I visited with the three Marines who were present in motorized wheelchairs, all amputees, all still recovering at Bethesda Naval Hospital from the same attack that killed this young hero. Each of these young men believed that their friend who had died had saved their life.
From that morning funeral, I went on to officiate at four more funerals that same day: some for Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard veterans of war or peacetime, some for their spouses. Approximately 30 funerals take place every day at Arlington National Cemetery, spanning all the branches of our nation’s military. In the last year, I have served 24 days at Arlington, and over the last four years that I have been assigned there, I have officiated at over 250 funerals for our veterans and their spouses. The military ceremony might change, but the same respect and dignity is brought to bear at every single one. I am thankful to my family, my congregation, and my church for supporting this ministry; most of all, I am grateful to God for the opportunity to speak his word of hope, and hopefully provide some small measure of comfort for the families who have sacrificed so very much.