A day at Arlington is a day for remembering heroes

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
The alarm clock chimed at 3 a.m. on April 9 just like it was supposed to do. My wife hit the off button and the next two minutes before I stirred seemed like an eternity.

This was going to be the start of a busy day. I had to get up early to beat the morning traffic between McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., and Arlington, Va., where I planned to attend a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. My main mission that day was to photo-journalistically cover the funeral for a former Air Force missing-in-action Airman who was to be buried nearly 40 years after he disappeared in Vietnam. That Airman's name was Maj. Robert F. Woods from Salt Lake City, Utah.

I got some coffee and a lunch ready and by 3:30 a.m. I was on the road -- first the New Jersey Turnpike and then on to Interstate 95 which would take me through Delaware, Maryland, Washington D.C. and eventually to Arlington.

By 7:50 a.m. I was outside the gates of Arlington National Cemetery. A police officer by the gate asked me my business and I told him, "I'm here to attend the funeral of Maj. Robert F. Woods." He confirmed the funeral was at 11 a.m. and told me at about 8:30 a.m. to go and park by the cemetery's administrative building, which I did.

By 9 a.m. I was parked, had checked my service dress for any imperfections and decided I'd take a walk around the cemetery for the first time in seven years. It was almost that amount of time, to the day, that I had last seen the sacred grounds of this national cemetery and immediately I could see there was a difference.

I first checked in the administrative building and saw that nine funerals were scheduled for the day. I could see family members of the fallen heroes gathering in the parking lot and in the administrative building, but I kept a friendly distance as a sign of respect.

In the administrative building, I asked the front desk coordinator where Major Woods was to be buried, and she kindly provided me a map to the location -- Section 60, Grave 8549.

Armed with that information, I left the building and set off walking. I walked maybe 200 yards when I encountered the first of three funerals I'd watch that hour. I stopped well beyond getting too close, but I was still close enough to see all that was taking place.

It stood out to me that this funeral was for a fallen Army hero. An Army honor guard was in place to take the flag-draped casket from the hearse, and standing beyond the gravesite were seven more Soldiers with vintage M-1 Garand rifles who performed a seven-gun, three volley salute.

Not to be confused with the 21-gun salute which is used during presidential arrivals and departures and when heads of state visit, the seven-gun, three volley salute is done at police and military funerals to honor the fallen member's sacrifice.

As I watched, the first of many tears shed that day came down my cheek. I watched the family members and I watched the precision of the honor guard as they honored their fallen comrade. Immediately I had an idea of what I might see at 11 a.m.

Eventually I made my way to Major Woods' resting place. Just off of Bradley Drive in the cemetery, I thought the area was fitting for such a hero as Major Woods. After all, Bradley Drive is named after the five-star Army Gen. Omar Bradley who was known as the "G.I.'s General" during World War II and for whom the rugged and versatile Army Bradley Fighting Vehicle is named after.

Major Woods himself was a decorated hero, having served in the Berlin Airlift as an enlisted crewmember on a C-74 Globemaster, then becoming an officer and flying KC-97 tankers in Korea earning an Air Medal, and finally flying as a forward air controller in Vietnam earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star. A 20-year military man when he disappeared in Vietnam in 1968, I knew Major Woods was serving when General Bradley was still serving. It was a daydream moment aside of why I was there, but interesting nonetheless.

By that time it was 9:35 a.m. and I decided to head back to the administrative building where I was to meet with Maj. Phil Heseltine and his family, who had invited me to attend this funeral, and together we were to meet with the family of Major Woods. Major Heseltine, who works with me at the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center on Fort Dix, was presenting the family with a POW/MIA bracelet he wore for 18 years bearing the name of Major Woods. I was honored he asked me to join him for the presentation and the funeral with the family's approval of course.

On the way back I took photos of the cemetery and the beautiful blooming trees with fragrances that permeated the air throughout the cemetery. From the cemetery I also could see the Pentagon and the new Air Force Memorial that were outside the cemetery gates yet still very visible. Amid the overcast skies I thought about what an impression I just had burned into my memory.

The normal five-minute walk back took me 20 minutes because I also briefly watched the funerals for another fallen Army hero and one for a fallen Navy hero. It made my footsteps along Sheridan Drive move a little slower, but I made it back to the administrative building in time to meet with Major Heseltine, his wife and their two daughters and together we walked down to the basement of the building to Meeting Room C.

For a few moments we were alone in the room, then one-by-one the family members of Major Woods came in. There were Major Woods' daughters and son, his grandchildren and siblings and old friends and a number of others. They had come from all over the country and as I found out later, it was sort of a family reunion because some hadn't seen each other in years. Missing was Mrs. Mary Woods, the major's wife who died in 1995. Family members also told me later that she never remarried and had always said her husband was coming home. They both were remembered this day.

Major Heseltine was the first to make a presentation to the family. He thought when he got there he would be presenting the bracelet to Major Woods' oldest daughter, Lana Taylor, but Lana said she wanted her brother Chuck Woods to have it. They made the presentation with all the family gathered round, and surprisingly Chuck turned and presented it to his son Mackenzie Woods who was surprised and happy at the same time. He and his father exchanged a tear-filled hug that I will never forget.

After 45 minutes, they boarded an Air Force bus to go to the first part of the funeral, a transfer ceremony. I rode with Major Heseltine and his family behind the bus.

We came to a stop at Patton Circle where I saw a full contingent of the Air Force Honor Guard and the Air Force Band on hand from Bolling Air Force Base, D.C. It was the largest contingent of the Air Force's best honor guard and band Airmen I'd ever seen. Additionally, there were two Soldiers from the Army's fabled 3rd Infantry Regiment on white horses at the ready with a horse-drawn caisson.

The ceremony started and the Air Force Band played while the Air Force Honor Guard removed Major Woods from a hearse and on to the caisson. They were slow and respectful in their movements. With the music and their step-by-step approach, it was a perfectly choreographed display of respect for this Air Force hero.

Once the caisson began to move, a procession of beauty took place. Leading was the Air Force Band, second the horse-drawn caisson, third was the Air Force Honor Guard and following that were family members on a slow walk. I walked behind the family members with Major Heseltine.

At graveside, there were more Air Force Honor Guard Airmen already in formation. The Air Force Band formed up to the honor guard's right and standing just beyond the gravesite were seven more Honor Guard Airmen with M-1 Garands at the ready for the seven-gun, three volley salute. Seeing all this, I felt as though I was in a storybook.

From there I watched. I watched the Air Force Honor Guard team carry the casket from the caisson to the grave stand. Eight of them in uniform harmony stood guard around the casket until the end of the ceremony. An Air Force chaplain began the proceedings by addressing the family who were all sitting in pre-arranged chairs. All of the family members were quiet and they had a solemn look about them. Later, Mrs. Taylor told me it was a "numb" feeling.

When it got to the point where the Air Force Honor Guard began the three-volley salute, I watched, with each volley, a few family members move in response. To me, when the "bang" rings out from those guns, you hear the sound of honor. Maybe that's what they heard too.

Soon the honor guard began the rhythmic folding of the American flag, slowly, methodically and as flawlessly as I'd seen them do everything else to this point.

Once folded, a brigadier general presented the flag to Mrs. Taylor. That's the moment I felt another tear roll down my cheek. A moment I'd seen on television before, but never in person. It's the moment of honor to a family whose hero gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Soon after that, it was over and family members and friends began placing flowers on the casket. At one point I saw a few of Major Woods' former forward-air-controller comrades set a coin on the casket followed by a salute. They were telling him, like they did before every flight in Vietnam, they would take the coin back when they saw him again some day.

Once everybody left, I made my way back to the administrative building and soon was back in my car, heading back to New Jersey. On that four-hour drive home, I knew I had just experienced something I will never forget and something that gave me pride in my service.

Air Force officials pulled out all the stops to honor Major Woods and deservedly so. Like all the others buried at Arlington, Major Woods will forever be a hero in my eyes and so will all of his family. The funeral solidified my belief that Arlington National Cemetery is a place to honor heroes every day and even though it had been seven years since I was there, I still felt like I did before, humbled.

This Memorial Day, and on Veteran's Day later this year, and every other Memorial Day and Veteran's Day hereafter, I'll remember that day at Arlington. I'll remember Major Woods, his family and all the heroes buried there along with the sacrifices their family gave. I know there is no greater honor I'll ever see than what I saw that day.