Saying A Final Goodbye To An American Veteran

Officer handing me the folded flag after the ceremony.

Submitted by Ellen Roffey

 

On September 25, 2017 several members of my family gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to honor my father, Bruce G. McAbery, Jr.  Dad passed away on August 15, 2013 at his home in Cape Coral, Florida, and was cremated shortly thereafter. It was four years before we were ready to say our last goodbye.

Dad was a pilot during WWII. He joined the Army Air Corps on March 10, 1943, one month before he turned 21. He was a 1st Lieutenant when he left the service. He was stationed in the Aleutian Islands and flew reconnaissance flights over Japan. It's hard to believe that such a young kid could do all that he did. 

In 1995 Dad was with us as we drove back from a family reunion in Ohio, and we stopped in Durham, New Hampshire to visit with his former navigator (who had also been the best man at Mom and Dad's wedding in 1944). Ted “Flak” Finnegan was a professor at UNH and had no problem talking about the missions they flew together. He told an amazing tale of the time they had completed their mission over Japan and their plane was hit just after they turned back toward home. Because of the damage to the plane, Dad had to fly nearly 10 hours with his legs fully extended, holding pedals to the floor, to keep the plane in the air. He had to be carried off when they landed because his legs were so cramped from holding that position. He never once talked about the war, as is pretty common among old soldiers, so Flak's tales kept us all enthralled for the whole evening.

Last December my sister and brother and I began talking about whether we could have Dad's ashes buried at Arlington. The job fell to me to make the arrangements. The staff at Arlington could not have been more accommodating during the whole process. From my first phone call in December 2016 through the ceremony itself, they were respectful, caring, and helpful every step of the process.  They gave us all the assistance we needed to get scheduled, and gave us a choice of dates and times when we could have the ceremony. The service would include a band, caisson with horses, escort, body bearer team of 6, firing party, and bugler. There was not a single dollar charged for any of this. Getting many family members together was quite a task, but we finally settled on September 25th. 

When our group of 18 arrived at Arlington we were met by Mr. Charles Moore, who was our official Cemetery Representative. He told us he'd be by my side throughout the entire time we were there, and if we had questions about any aspect of the ceremony all we had to do was ask.  Exactly on time we got into our cars and were led to the site where the uniformed Air Force members were waiting for us. I was amazed to see the band, horses, and caisson. I asked Mr. Moore if all of this was for our father, and he answered that yes, every last one was for our father, and that every single Airman was proud and honored to do this job. That was when my first tears were shed, but there were many more to follow.

We witnessed the transfer of the remains from Mr. Moore directly to the service member who then passed it to the person whose job it was to place the urn into the opening in the end of the casket on the caisson. Mr. Moore explained that this was so we'd never have any question of a mix-up and we could be certain we were burying our father. We then moved slowly toward the shelter where our service would be held. By then the casket was in place and the body bearer team was in place on either side. As they began the ceremonial folding of the flag, the band started playing quietly. When the flag was folded the firing party did their 21-gun salute. Then the lone bugler played Taps, and the officer in charge presented the folded flag to me.  After this moving presentation we walked a short distance to the Columbarium, the area of the cemetery where all ashes are inurned, and witnessed the placement of dad's ashes in the slot assigned to him.

The entire ceremony was incredibly moving, and I'm so grateful to everyone at Arlington National Cemetery for everything they did to make it so special.  Every day we lose more members of the Greatest Generation. Before long the veterans of WWII will only be a memory to be read about in history books.  That the staff of Arlington go to such great lengths to honor these veterans, and to have been a part of this was nothing short of amazing.