While performing Navy funeral honors, I focused on the actions of the service. Doing so helped me perform the honors better and made me feel better about doing them. In general, I like performing a specific task that follows a specific function. I appreciate simplicity of purpose. I like knowing the outcomes of situations. This is why I am good at funeral honors but bad at dates, where I find myself wondering if this might go somewhere, and where that place would be, and whether it would have been worth it when we find ourselves there. Funerals ground such concerns. It’s all right there: death, yes, but life, too, complete ones, and the ones to follow. And it will all be okay. I didn’t have to search for meaning. When performing funeral honors, I could reach out and touch it.
It would seem to be the opposite, given the circumstances, but I reveled in neither the mourners’ sadness nor my own. Every service member who retired or was honorably discharged merits military funeral honors if they so choose. And if they do, the service is required to be performed to completion, until the American flag is presented properly to the next of kin. People have a need; I provide it. There is solace in that, and satisfaction. As I kneeled and handed the American flag to the next of kin, we looked into each other’s eyes as I repeated a refrain exalting his or her loved one’s honorable and faithful service. I did this with love. And by doing so, I tried to imagine if I had had a life or would have one that would merit such a ceremony, to have the flag as a symbol of my service, and if the person receiving the flag would think it did.
When I was in grad school at Colorado State University, I also joined the Navy Reserves after eight years of active duty as an officer. During my last tour in the navy, I served as the sole American officer at the Japanese Naval Academy on an island outside of Hiroshima, where I taught English to the Japanese midshipmen. My Japanese was basic, so I spent two years accompanied mostly just by my thoughts, which became a kind of reality. I wondered about my path in life in the navy that had brought me there, and how it was all going. I needed to do something different. My initial service commitment was done after I left Japan, so I decided to leave the navy. When I returned, in one fell swoop I left Japan and active duty, moved to Colorado, started grad school, and joined the reserves. I felt like an exposed nerve as I tried to stake a claim on the meaning in my life, and its path. When, at a reserve drill weekend, the enlisted funeral coordinator told us about funeral honors, I felt that corny feeling of fate, and I signed up.
I was paid for my service, lest the reader believe I think I am worthy of special praise. In three years, I performed 160 navy funeral honors across the northeast quadrant of Colorado, as close as in Fort Collins, where I lived in the shadows of the foothills, to 100 miles east, way out in the plains.
The day before the funeral, I would receive a text from the enlisted funeral coordinator with the time, date, and location of the funeral. With my text response that I would be there, I was signing a contract submitting myself to duty, and fate, a participant in it all. I performed funeral honors for veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the War on Terror, and everything in between. I tried to learn each of their stories. I remembered the ones that I could. I felt guilty when I forgot. I tried not to worry about it. I wondered if not worrying was a sign of apathy. I wondered if the services I provided were enough. I decided they were all I could do. I did this one to two times a week for years.
If you ask my classmates, professors, or reserve superiors about me during that time, the results will be varied and perhaps suspect. Ask my fellow funeral-honors members, and they’ll tell you I was fucking solid as a rock. Because I was. I showed up early, put on my dry-cleaned dress uniform, saluted the hearse, greeted the mourners, played taps, folded the flag, kneeled in front of the next of kin while I repeated the refrain. I believed and believe every word of the refrain, because I believed and believe in the service I was providing for them. I was there for my fellow funeral-honors members, too. I was there. I would then return to my life until the next one.
It was during the time in between the funerals that I struggled, when I wondered about my future, and my present. I was older than a lot of my classmates, and we had divergent experiences. I was for the first time, on two separate occasions, called a “bro,” an indication that I was not like the others. Strange, because that’s how I felt in the naval aviation, where my call sign was “Moodle,” short for “Man Poodle.” And in the military, I was a Moodle, as I felt repressed by the structural oversight and often acted in kind. When I got out from under that thumb, first tasting freedom in Japan, I was a man unleashed and didn’t know how to reel myself in. I liked telling jokes in class, my way of expressing to others, and most of all to myself, to not take this all so seriously: let’s play. Or maybe it was how I railed against certain program requirements, which may have been from institution fatigue after having spent nearly half my life in the military. One of my professors told me once that I had “a knee-jerk reaction to authority.” Not wrong, but I wasn’t trying to be a dick. I was trying to act in a way that was separate from authority. I understood where I was, I just had trouble understanding who I was, and what that meant in the context of my surroundings.
While I was steadfast in those beliefs about funeral honors, I wasn’t so much about reserves, which was one weekend a month, two weeks a year of administrative hell, with little of the camaraderie that had previously sustained me. It was all paperwork and hoop-jumping, a means to end, to put in x years until retirement. I became keenly aware of my own mortality, sitting at my desk during drill weekends, lamenting the assholes around me, or that maybe I was the asshole. When my unit executive officer told me that I shouldn’t be separating myself from the unit so much, it was advice too late. When he told me, apropos of pissing him off, that I did reserves just for the funerals honors, and funeral honors just to make money, I responded with something professional and anodyne, but thought, This is so fucked, fuck this. I knew our relationship was dead then, and soon, so was mine to the navy.
After I graduated, I left the reserves and Colorado for a job in Washington, D.C. Before I left, the only group I said goodbye to was the funeral-honors members team. I had relationships with individuals, but this was the only group I felt true loyalty and kinship to. At a beer garden one night in Denver, we shared small talk and some stories about funerals honors we had performed. There was one member there with whom I performed honors at a Fort Collins funeral a few months prior. The deceased gentleman, a World War II veteran, was in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, a distinguished alumnus from Oklahoma State, and a chief of surgery, and completed climbing all 58 Colorado peaks higher than 14,000 feet when he was 78 years old. The pews were packed. I don’t remember his name. I do remember how I felt when I marched up to his casket in preparation to fold the flag that was draped over it, the people who loved him in attendance, watching us meet each other for the first time. This was life. I wished I had known him.