It was a warm summer’s morning as I stood hesitantly in the door of the church, removing my service cap and tucking it under my arm. I adjusted my tie and cast a glance at my uniform before stepping inside. Seeing a tall man in a black suit, I asked if this is where the funeral was taking place. He responded that yes, it was, and that I must be the officer who would be presenting the flag to the family members of the deceased; I said that I was. I could already see the triangular outline of the trimly folded U.S. flag leaning against the urn with the remains, in front of the altar. Since I was early, I walked around a bit, admiring the stained glass windows and stonework. My feet led me downstairs in search of the restroom. There was the church hall. And that was where I found the small memorial for the woman I was there for.
I had never met her before in my life. All I knew was that she had been a first lieutenant in the United States Army, and that entitled her to have someone of an equal or greater rank to present her family with the flag – a representation of the thanks of a grateful nation, one last time. And I also knew that she had served in World War II, though in what capacity, I had no idea. Thousands of ceremonies like this take place across the U.S. every week; funeral honors teams from all components of the military rendering the last respects at funerals and interments. Some are well attended by friends and family; some are not. But as long as the family requests it, there will be a small team of uniformed service members to fold the flag, play taps, and present the folded flag to the next of kin — the surgical, military term for “loved one.”
Looking over the memorial, I saw a woman who clearly loved her life. Photos of family, travel, and of a young medical services officer in uniform, sending the camera an open and cheerful smile. Next to it was pinned a caricature of a fair-faced young American woman, wearing her garrison cap with second lieutenant rank displayed on it proudly — the caricature simply marked “Paris.” More photos, the quick glimpses into a long life. And then, a certificate, framed – “The bearer of this is admitted entrance into the Dachau Concentration Camp.” I froze.
Dachau. A word synonymous with horror. Dachau. Where, “Death was something normal; it occurred everywhere: at roll call, at work, on the block road, at the toilets. In normal life the death of a cat that has died on the street draws attention and arouses pity. The emaciated, wretched prisoner lying in death attracted no great attention.” (“That was Dachau,” by Stanislav Zamecnik) Started as a political prison in 1933, it soon became a death camp as the Nazis added Jews, dissenting Catholic priests, LGBTQ persons, and anyone else who dared oppose them. Here, the “final solution” was not executed by firing squad or gas chamber, but by the slow and miserable death of starvation. As U.S. forces approached in 1945, some camp commanders ordered buildings nailed up and then set alight, with their occupants still inside them. When the main camp and its sub-camps were liberated in 1945, the U.S. troops found scenes of unimaginable evil: buildings packed with corpses; piles of corpses on fire; the sick and dying laying everywhere. And into this hellscape walked this young American nurse.
But regardless, she must have seemed a ministering angel as she worked to battle the multitude of diseases that were rampant across the camp. Even after liberation, hundreds of people were dying. That was her war; to fight off the disease, the despair, and the malnutrition. She brought hope and health to countless lives. She looked evil in the face and carried the reminder of it with her for the rest of her life, but did not let it ever deter her.
Now, 74 years later, this young American captain gazed at the photograph of the officer again – seeing the strength in her face, as well as the cheerfulness. And I thought back to my family – my mother’s family – who disappeared during the Holocaust. Entire generations wiped out in camps across Germany and eastern Europe. Perhaps, just maybe, this young woman had provided a kind word, a gentle touch, or a sign of hope to someone of my family. Maybe.
Mass began in the church, and I stood in the back, waiting. The church was large, and so the crowd of family and friends seemed pitifully small in such a large space. Pitifully small for someone who had done so much for so many. How many, I wondered, owed their lives to this woman? How many generations were given a chance because of her care?
And it was suddenly as if the church were no longer empty; as if I could see the lines of dimly visible smiling people walking in to take their places in the pews, apologizing for their lateness. The priests – Roman and Orthodox – standing together on the right, following along closely with the service. My Jewish comrades standing, awkwardly unsure what to do, under the windows, but craning to get a better glimpse of the officer’s memorial. And most of all, the crowds of children with their parents, being shushed and herded inside – those who would not exist, but for her care of their parents. No, we were not alone – the church was packed to overflowing.
The Mass over, silence fell. The staff sergeant marched silently down the aisle, saluted the flag, and taps began. Silence over all. Then came the unfolding of the flag, the “snap” as it was briefly open – the colors she served under unfurled one last time – and then the soldiers were folding it. Slowly. Respectfully. At my cue, I approached the sergeant and received the folded flag. He saluted before fading back. And I turned to the family. What words could possibly express the deep gratitude I felt? How could I express the impact that she had on so many, on people as-yet unborn?
“On behalf of a grateful nation, please accept this symbol…” The rehearsed words tumbled out, lost in the red-rimmed eyes looking back at me. They knew. And as the simple words came to a close, I released the flag, and with it, my own gratitude.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain once wrote “In great deeds, something abides.” What makes a deed great? She will never be remembered in histories; there are no massive monuments to her. And yet, she – and so many like her – brought hope where it did not exist before. What could possibly be greater?
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