"I didn't know how important this was until now."
These were the words spoken to me by a family member of a World War II Navy veteran following a short ceremony at the family home on the outskirts of Spokane.
In September 1943, just shy of his 18th birthday, this veteran joined the Navy and for three years sailed throughout the Pacific, including Okinawa and the Philippines, where he earned a number of combat medals. Like many of the veterans of World War II, he didn't talk much about his service.
His family had traveled from the east coast to join his wife at their custom built log home he had constructed especially for his wife. But after only two nights, he had died there.
A friend of the family, an Army Reserve non-commissioned officer, arranged for military honors to be rendered at the family home. Joining us was another Army Reserve NCO, a Navy Reserve lieutenant, a retired Army officer who plays taps at numerous funerals and graveside ceremonies in the area, and a firing party consisting of two Navy reservists and one active duty Navy Seaman. Together we represented three services, the officer and enlisted corps, active duty, reserve and retired members.
One of the veteran's family members asked if it is standard practice to have such a variety of participants from the various military services. I answered "No, this team represents all volunteers who were available and wanted to come."
As we began, the family was seated near the front porch. On a table was displayed a photo of the beloved family man; nearby was a shadow box displaying his medals. I opened the ceremony with an introduction describing the sequence of events and noted that while the ceremony would be short in time, it would be long in significance. I then led them in an opening prayer.
The atmosphere was quiet as the Army representatives unfurled the flag. The three-man Navy firing team provided a 21-gun salute and the bugler played taps. Tears were wiped from eyes. The flag was folded, the Navy Lieutenant presented it to the veteran's widow, and the ceremony concluded. Family members thanked us and we departed.
How does a nation say thank you to a military veteran on a Saturday afternoon in the Washington countryside? It does so with uniformed volunteers, a flag, a firing salute and the playing of taps. We know how important this is.