The Foreign Service of the United States comprises not only ambassadors and ministers and diplomatic secretaries. Broadly speaking, the Service importantly includes, as well, attachés, military and civil, representing various functions. The author of this sketch remarks on another of the many different paths that brings people to the profession. -- Ed
It rained that day. I knew it was going to be a tough one. Days had been getting tougher lately, but this one was different. A year ago I felt honored to be selected to run the sunny Post Cemetery at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Over the last year I buried WWI, WW2, Korean, and Vietnam veterans. I buried military retirees and eligible family members. I ensured all were buried with honor and dignity. I felt special pride in attending and being responsible for honors, to include a horse-mounted honor guard, for one of our last Buffalo Soldiers.
This day was different. As I stood in that cemetery in my class A dress uniform, I thought about this funeral. I thought back to last week when we were told that the wife of a local soldier had been found dead, murdered, in the trunk of an ex-boyfriend's car by the Texas border patrol. We were told she was found with over twenty stab wounds, all from the neck up. We found out that the young girl was also the daughter of a local retired first sergeant, a senior in high school, and a cheerleader. The situation was even sadder as her eighteen-year-old soldier husband was returning to Fort Huachuca from Fort Irwin, California. He had deployed to the National Training Center only a week after his marriage to this young girl. He had been there two weeks and now was in a convoy returning home, no doubt thinking of his beautiful new bride waiting for him. This was the time before cell phones; there was no way to contact him or his unit. Instead of his new bride, the young soldier only had the chaplain and his battalion commander waiting for him.
However, my contacts had simply been with the funeral home and the command's officers responsible for providing support. This was the norm as I, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the post cemetery, was not responsible for funeral arrangements. I was responsible for ensuring all funerals conducted at the post cemetery were performed with proper decorum and in accordance with U.S. Army regulations. I coordinated with the local funeral homes, not the family. I supervised the cemetery workers. I attended the funerals. Nonetheless, knowing the circumstances surrounding this funeral made it different.
I arrived that rainy morning and took my normal place, some fifty feet behind the small, open-air Chapel where graveside services were conducted. From experience I knew this location was close enough to observe the proceedings, yet far enough to remain in the background. I was there, standing at attention in my background place, as the hearse drove up. The familymother, father, sisters, brothers, and husband, followed it. Several of the husband's fellow soldiers followed the family members as they were the pallbearers. I immediately noticed that after them followed an endless stream of others. While most funerals I experienced had fewer than twenty people and the largest had around fifty, I estimated this funeral procession to number close to 200 or more. My background location quickly became up-front. I remained at attention and kept my military decorumI had responsibilities to the deceased, to the family, and to the Army.
As the pallbearers removed the casket from the hearse and carried it to the front of the chapel, the grieving mother yelled out, Oh, my baby, my baby's gone! The crowd as one started crying. I too, this young strapping Sergeant in the United States Army, cried. I did not know this young girl, her family, or her soldier husband; but I cried. I stood there at attention among the crying crowd with tears rolling down my cheeks. I cried during the service. I cried as my cemetery workers lowered the casket and covered the grave. I cried when I put the temporary grave marker on the grave and was thanked by the family. I did not know any of them, but I cried.
Yes, it had been a tough day. Maybe it had been the year of funerals averaging three a week, or maybe it was the circumstances of this death and funeral, but I resolved on my way back to the office that day that I had to find another job.
Sitting back at my desk I contemplated what to do. I did not want to go to the sergeant major and say I couldn't handle it; no, that would not be a good career move. But, I had to do something. As a distraction, I reached down and picked up the recent edition of the Army Times newspaper sitting on my desk. I thumbed through it, partly reading, partly drifting off in thought as I turned each page.
An article seeking volunteers for the defense attaché system caught my attention. The article offered travel, language training, and challenging assignments. It offered career enhancing, diplomatic, worldwide assignments. It offered immediate assignments. The article listed the prerequisites, and I exceeded them all. After this tough day, I was ready to move. I applied.
Within weeks after applying, my wife and I excitedly drove away from Fort Huachuca on our way to Washington, D.C. I was going there to start my training for assignment to the American Embassy Sofia's Defense Attaché Office. I was being assigned to Communist, Warsaw Pact Bulgaria as an assistant army attaché. As I drove away I thought about all those I interred at that little cemetery at the foot of the Huachuca Mountains. I thought about how that one tough day turned a new page in my life. A tear welled up in my eye, but I didn't cry and I never looked back.