What I've Learned During My Son's First Deployment

I'm inventorying the supplies before packing them for shipping. photo by Stanley Leary
I’m inventorying the supplies before packing them for shipping.
photo by Stanley Leary

My son’s battalion will return home soon. I’ve looked through my photos and notes about the year. During that time I have mailed over 443 pounds of needed items to both my son, his platoon, and the battalion. That number includes a Christmas mailing providing gift bags for each member of the platoon, a large shipment of items to the battalion headquarters of underwear and socks, as well as Easter, birthday and regular care packages. Putting these mailings together was a community effort. It helped me pass the time by providing helpful items to our soldiers. Many of my friends sent their own boxes. I know my son and his soldiers appreciated their gifts.

In addition to reviewing the notes and photos of mailings, I’ve been reflecting on all that I have learned this year.

I’ll list these in no particular order:

While many people in our community are clueless about what it is like to have a love one deploy, so many others are extremely supportive.

The unexpected ring of the door bell can make your thoughts race and your heart pound.

Missing a Skype call really stinks.

Corresponding via cell phone to a deployed soldier in Afghanistan is amazing.

My friends and many others who read my blog are some of the most supportive and generous people ever!

The battalion commander of my son’s battalion is a very caring person.

The Family Readiness Groups are very supportive. Be sure your soldier lists you as an approved contact so you can get the updates.

There is no way to fully prepare for a child’s deployment.

The pain you feel for a fallen soldiers family is real, but can’t come close to the pain they must feel.

Helping to support deployed soldiers by sending packages and notes of support is a great way to deal with my own anxiety about deployment.

The various Facebook groups for parents/family of deployed soldiers are a good resource, but some have too much drama.

Be careful who you friend on Facebook.

Do not post any information to Facebook that could endanger our deployed soldiers. Cyber stalking does happen.

The extended Army family is amazing.

Some of our deployed troops do not get mail from home. Send extra so your soldier can share. Don’t judge the families. It is expensive to mail boxes, not everyone can afford to send things.

Never under-estimate the joy a roll of soft toilet paper can bring to a deployed soldier.

The single soldiers return to the US without a lot of support. Support the rear detachment office with your donations for welcome home items for the barracks.

The company, Covert Threads, offers great socks at a good price.

Take items out of their original box and put them into zip lock bags. The soldiers have to burn their trash and the bags can be used to keep dust off of other items.

Quite a few companies offer free shipping to APO addresses. Just Google “free shipping to APO” for a list of companies/organizations.

Cigars are appreciated. Island Smoke Shop is a great resource. A Combat Humidor makes a great gift too.

When people ask what they can do to support you and your soldier, keep a list of needed/wanted items handy. Ask people to help supply them.

The people at the local Post Office like to hear how my son is doing.

Many of our soldiers can’t send mail or communicate their thanks, but they are very grateful for our support.

A call, Facebook message, or a photo can make your whole week.

Clean underwear and socks are always appreciated.

Blue Star Mothers, Blue Star Families can be a great support network to plug into.

Memories in Stitches will make a Gold Star banner for a fallen soldier’s family. She also makes Blue Star quilts.

You can find Blue Star pins and flags at a reasonable price online.

As hard as it may be, read up on the potential effects of war on the soldiers and the ones who love them.

An overview of some of the mailings of the past nine months. . . .

Prayyer Squares made by the Prayers and Squares ministry of Roswell Presbyterian Church.
Squares made by the Prayers and Squares ministry of Roswell Presbyterian Church.
The three goody bags went into a zip lock bag with a note from the children and a card from us.
The three goody bags went into a zip lock bag with a note from the children and a card from us.
The goodies were sorted and put into gift bags. Each soldier will get three bags of goodies.
The goodies were sorted and put into gift bags. Each soldier will get three bags of goodies.
Christmas Stockings for soldiers form the Military Ministry of Roswell Presbyterian Church.
Christmas Stockings for soldiers from the Military Ministry of Roswell Presbyterian Church.
Dorie visits with the Family Readiness Group (FRG) leader and the FRSA.
Dorie visits with the Family Readiness Group (FRG) leader and the FRSA.
A variety of silly items from the Dollar Store made for a fun birthday box.
A variety of silly items from the Dollar Store made for a fun birthday box.
We sent some fun items for Easter too.
We sent some fun items for Easter too.

Welcoming the New Cadets and Honoring our Fallen

The Atlanta Citadel Club hosted the annual Cadet send off event June 13. The dinner is the best attended event each year and usually features an address from an administrator on campus.

L-R Cadet Luke Cathy, '14; Tyler Smith, '13; Mike Rogers, CAA; Collin Hicks, '14 Regimental Commander; Michael Escoe, VP, ACC; Col. Leo Mercado, Commandant of Cadets; Col. Joseph Trez, Director Krause Center for Leadership and Ethics.
L-R Cadet Luke Cathy, ’14; Tyler Smith, ’13; Mike Rogers, CAA; Collin Hicks, ’14 Regimental Commander; Michael Escoe, VP, ACC; Col. Leo Mercado, Commandant of Cadets; Col. Joseph Trez, Director Krause Center for Leadership and Ethics.

A few months ago I joined the club as an affiliate member. Due to travel schedules the leadership of the club asked me and the current chair of the Georgia Citadel Parents Group to help with registration. It was a terrific way to meet everyone as they arrived.

I looked forward to this event each year. I am still in touch with the family I met when I arrived at the send off event before my son began his knob year. As part of the tradition, I take a group photo of the knobs in attendance. See the video the Citadel Alumni Association compiled of the evening.

The Citadel Class of 2017 incoming cadets from Georgia
The Citadel Class of 2017 incoming cadets from Georgia

This year I requested a few minutes on the agenda to ask for support for the homecoming needs of my son’s battalion. Then something really neat happened. I heard from the college roommate of Sgt. Aaron Wittman, a Citadel grad and the fallen soldier from the 3-69. I attended Aaron’s burial in February at Arlington National Cemetery.

A few months ago I read about the foundation set up by his classmates in Aaron’s name. I bought a t-shirt that was made for participants to wear in memory of Aaron during the Cooper River Bridge run. At the time I offered to help get the word out to Citadel parents about Aaron and his Foundation.

Aaron and his parents have been in my prayers since I received word of his death early this year. We have never met, but I felt connected to them once I learned of their connection to The Citadel and because our sons served in the same battalion together. I wanted to write to them, but I never did. That changed the week of the ACC dinner.

Robby Jackson, Aaron’s good friend and classmate emailed me before the dinner. He asked if I would help get the word out to current parents about the Aaron Wittman Foundation. He told me that Aaron’s parents had donated Aaron’s ring to the Band of Gold program administered by the Citadel Alumni Association. His ring will be melted down and be part of the ring the Class of 2014 will receive this Fall. Robby then put me in touch with Duane Wittman, Aaron’s father, so I could learn more about the scholarship fund the foundation will support.

SGT. Aaron X. WIttman photo used with permission Aaron Wittman Foundation
SGT. Aaron X. WIttman
photo used with permission Aaron Wittman Foundation

I was so happy to finally be in touch with this family whom I’ve prayed for. During my recent visit to Fort Stewart my daughter and I took time to stop at the Warrior’s Walk where trees are planted in memory of the Ft. Stewart soldiers who were killed. We went to pay our respects to Aaron and to Rex Schad another 3-69 soldier who gave his life for our freedom. It was an honor to be able to share the photo I took of Aaron’s tree with Duane.

Aaron’s father Duane sent me the following information about the foundation:

First, the Aaron Wittman “07” Scholarship Fund was the wonderful idea and effort of Aaron’s classmates.

The Wittman’s agreed that a Memorial Scholarship was the best way to honor Aaron and his selfless sacrifice and teamed up with his Citadel Classmates to create the Aaron X Wittman Memorial Scholarship.  The Scholarship Operating Board consisting of Aaron’s classmates and the Wittman Family signed the official MOU with The Citadel Foundation on 5 April 2013. 

To date, the endowment level was achieved by 1 June with $52K + on hand and the jump start scholarship dollars are available and will be awarded this year. 

We should reach our goal of  $100k by 31 Dec 2013 and a life-long goal of $250k.

The Goal of the Scholarship is to provide a rising Sophomore Cadet financial support for three years/graduation. 

 Selection criteria:

·         Financial Need is First Priority

·         Achieve 2.0 GPA for Freshman Year

·         Must maintain a 2.5 GPA to maintain Scholarship after award

·         Member of National Guard (desired but not required)

·         Prefer a Cadet who desires a future in the Armed Forces. 

If you would like to support this effort please visit the website: SGT. Aaron X. Wittman, ’07, Scholarship Fund

This video is a great overview of the foundation. The Birth of the Aaron Wittman Foundation

You can also join the Aaron Wittman Foundation Facebook page to receive regular updates.

SGT. Aaron Wittman's tree on Warrior's Walk at Fort Stewart.
SGT. Aaron Wittman’s tree on Warrior’s Walk at Fort Stewart.

 

My daughter takes a few moments to reflect.  Warrior's Walk, Fort Stewart.
My daughter takes a few moments to reflect.
Warrior’s Walk, Fort Stewart.

 

Deployment: A Wilted Yellow Ribbon and a Determined Flower.

Our ribbon is looking very sad at this point in the deployment cycle.
Our ribbon is looking very sad at this point in the deployment cycle.

I went for a walk in the neighborhood this morning. On the way past the front of our home I noticed the yellow ribbon that we put up when my oldest son deployed was looking a bit sad and wilted. The ribbon mirrors my internal mood.

We are over half way through this deployment. While I keep a cheery exterior and move through the paces of daily life, the invisible undercurrent that pervades my inner thoughts is fairly dark and gloomy.

My walk in the neighborhood was a way to shake myself out of a funk. This morning I posted this update: “Chelle has one more day of middle school, then my baby will be a high school freshman!” A Citadel classmate of my son then replied “Chin in.”

His comment made me smile. It sounded like something my deployed son would say. I haven’t heard from my son in over a week.  Having his classmate respond was like hearing from my son, but not quite. I felt the tears well up so I took a walk.

It is a beautiful day. I felt better just enjoying the sounds of a nice spring day. I passed a determined little flower poking through the asphalt and had to take a photo. It was a good reminder to press on through. I ran into a neighbor and we caught up a bit. My walk around the neighborhood continued and I was feeling much better.

This little flower seemed determined to poke it's way through the asphalt as a testament to will power and determination.
This little flower seemed determined to poke it’s way through the asphalt as a testament to will power and determination.

Then I saw our wilted yellow ribbon and was reminded why I took a walk.

Melancholy on Mother's Day

Chelle and Dorie visit with their soldier in the fall of 2012 during Family Day at Fort Stewart. photo by Stanley Leary
Chelle and Dorie visit with their soldier in the fall of 2012 during Family Day at Fort Stewart.
photo by Stanley Leary

Today is my first Mother’s Day as the mom of a deployed soldier. I have to admit that Mother’s day has never been a favorite holiday of mine. My own mother died when I was pregnant with my first child. When I was struggling one Mother’s Day a friend pointed out, “Mother’s Day is a tough day for mothers who have lost their mothers.”

So this day reminds me of who is not here as much as it reminds me of my own motherhood. I love my children and am grateful for the tokens of their love each year. But as hard as I try to stay with the here and now, I am reminded of who is not here with us. This year it is my first-born child.

I haven’t heard from him in days. On Facebook I see photos of flower arrangements sent to other moms from their deployed children, and read of messages sent and Skype calls made. My expectations of hearing from my son are very low.

This past week I was asked to contribute some tips for Mother’s Day to the military blog, Off the Base, a project of Bobbie O’Brien of WUSF. Bobbie also interviewed me this week for a Mother’s Day piece that aired on WUSF this past Friday. The interview went well until I was asked about what I do for Mother’s Day. For several years now I have not seen my oldest son on Mother’s Day. I do, however, have a few phone messages I have kept from previous Mother’s Day calls from my oldest son. I never do know when I’ll hear from him. I keep the messages just so I can hear his voice once in a while. As I told Bobbie about these messages I choked up a bit.

So today is another day of mixed emotions. My husband and my two children took me to enjoy a nice Mother’s Day brunch at my favorite restaurant in town, Adele’s. This afternoon we will listen to my daughter play with her middle school orchestra at an art festival in town. The evening will be used to prepare for the week ahead.

It’s early afternoon here and night-time in Afghanistan. No word from my deployed son.

My daughter told me I had to wear this cape to her orchestra performance today. It did lighten the mood a bit.
My daughter told me I had to wear this cape to her orchestra performance today. It did lighten the mood a bit.

FOOTNOTE: I wrote this entry before the concert at the arts festival in town. During the concert I was showing my Army ACU purse to two children sitting next to me. I then looked at my phone to check Facebook messages. There was a note from my deployed son! As I was talking about him, he was writing to me. It made my afternoon. He said Happy Mother’s Day then told me I wouldn’t hear from him for a while. The tears flowed once again.

I put on my dark sunglasses and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon.

Support for the 3-69 AR BN

The color guard moves forward during the Casing of the Colors for the 3-69 AR at Fort Stewart, October 2012.
The color guard moves forward during the Casing of the Colors for the 3-69 AR at Fort Stewart, October 2012.

The Family Readiness Group for my son’s battalion sent me a note recently outlining their needs for both the families of the deployed soldiers and for the soldiers over seas. Early this year, with the help of many friends and family members, I was able to gather and send items. The battalion needs our help again.

I hope the readers of this post will help me get the word out once again. If you live near me in Roswell, GA and can drop off your donation great send me an email to let me know you’ll be donating! If you would like to send a financial donation, please email me at: dorie@dorielgriggs.com

They requested the following items:

Underwear (solid color boxer briefs in medium, large, and XL)

Good, sturdy boot length socks

T-shirts

Foot powder, soap, baby wipes, shaving cream (in tubes not aerosol)

Sunscreen (cream, no aerosol cans)

They have also established an account for the battalion. Money donated to the fund will be used to give injured battalion members gift baskets, provide welcome home baskets for single soldiers, and also to help with their welcome home activities. To donate to the battalion send your donation to: Friends of Speed and Power

mail to:

3-69 AR BN, Attn: LT Yamin, 515 Warrior Road, Bldg 648, Fort Stewart, GA  31314

Please share this post with anyone you believe will help.

Thank you!!

A Toast from Strangers

This year the start of spring has been extremely cold. This morning, March 26, we have snow flurries outside. A far cry from the beautiful warm spring day in 1989 when my first-born decided to arrive.

I can’t help but think this cold weather serves as a symbol for how military moms feel when their children are deployed. Life goes on, but in a different way, when they are deployed. Since he is far away on his birthday this year it is entirely appropriate for it to be snowing on a day that we usually celebrate new life.  The weather mirrors my internal mood.

At our house we celebrate occasions big and small. This year celebrating was hard. I had sent a few gifts to him early. He really likes the Combat Humidor and cigars I sent. But last night, his actual birthday, I felt the need to do one more thing.

I called the owner of Molly MacPherson’s, a pub in Richmond Hill. It was one of Nelson’s favorite places when he was living there before he deployed. When I visited in the fall for a Family Readiness Meeting he took me there for dinner. I asked the owner, Jennifer, to help me with a birthday present for my deployed son. After giving her my credit card information I ordered Scotch eggs (his favorite) and a round of beer. I asked her to give it to her regulars at the bar. I also asked her to ask the patrons to toast Nelson on his birthday.

Patrons at Molly MacPherson's in Richmond Hill, GA toast Nelson's birthday.
Patrons at Molly MacPherson’s in Richmond Hill, GA toast Nelson’s birthday.

A few hours later an email came in from an address I did not recognize. It was a message from Jennifer. The email included a photo of a group of soldiers holding their beer up. The attached video was of the birthday toast. Jennifer told me one of the men had been with the same unit as my son, Speed and Power! 3-69 AR.

This cold spring day was warmed by the image of those strangers toasting my deployed son on his birthday. I look forward to the day my son and I can visit Jennifer at Molly MacPherson’s and toast his homecoming.

Celebrating His Birthday During Deployment

24 years ago this evening I went into labor with my first-born son. I was already 10 days past my due date and was ready to go. He was breach, but my doctor was going to allow me to deliver naturally, until he went into distress. With in minutes I was prepped and off to the delivery room for an emergency c-section.

Nelson spent a few days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) after he was born.
Nelson spent a few days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) after he was born.

Nelson came into the world in a dramatic fashion. He was tough though. At over 8 pounds he looked like a monster baby next to the others in the NICU. He had to be hooked up to monitors and receive oxygen for a few days. He recovered nicely from his exciting entry into the world and has sought adventure ever since.

He is celebrating his birthday this year far from home. I am writing this entry the evening of March 24 here at home, but it is well into March 25 where he is now. We all miss him.

This afternoon our daughter expressed her love for her brother in a birthday video for him. They are ten years apart. When she was a toddler she called him NaNa. The name has stuck, at least at our home. Her video made me tear up.

We look forward to the day we can celebrate his birthday at home.

Dorie and Nelson his first day at home.
Dorie and Nelson his first day at home.

 

The War in Iraq: Ten Years Later It's Personal

Ten years ago this week I was at our kitchen table reading the news of the “shock and awe” that started our war in Iraq. My two buys, 14 and 12 at the time were impressed with the photos that were featured on the front page. They were fascinated as they watched the televised images of missiles as they were launched and flashed on their descent into Iraq.

I was against our entrance into war. In 2003 I worked for the nonprofit, Faith And The City, and served as the producer for an interfaith dialogue television program. All of us in the office preferred a diplomatic approach to differences over sending our young soldiers into harms way. Ten years ago I couldn’t have predicted what I would be doing today.

This morning started with a message from my oldest son. He updated me on his work as a soldier in Afghanistan. My Facebook feed today is filled with retrospective pieces on the war in Iraq.

I couldn’t imagine then that my oldest son would be one of the soldiers in the Middle East today. I have said this before but there are days that seem surreal. I am here, and fine physically. Mentally my thoughts are all over the place. My son is always on my mind, but today scores of others weigh heavily on my mind.

My last year as a student at Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS)I developed a model of chaplaincy to journalist that cover traumatic events. Leading up to my final year in my master of divinity program many people questioned why a journalist would need a chaplain. As the wife of a photographer and having many friends who are reporters, I knew something many of our media consuming public still is not aware of as they read or watch the news. Journalists are first responders to traumatic events that others are fleeing from. Unlike other first responders there is no industry wide protocol to help them after an event. Firefighters, police, emergency medical personnel, all have some type of support protocol in place after an event. Many of these professions have chaplains available to them for support.

Journalist cover events, often at risk to their personal safety, then have to write, photograph and file stories about it only to go out and do it again the next day. They do not have a corporate culture of support. Like our soldiers, law enforcement members and others, journalists do not look for praise for doing their job. They are also hesitant to reveal they are struggling with the effects of what they have seen and experienced for fear of being sidelined from doing their job.

I entered my final year of seminary quite sure of the need for a caring presence for journalists. My husband and my supervisor in my clinical pastoral education class were about the only ones who understood my vision. Then the school year started.

It was the 2001-2002 school year. My first class was scheduled for the end of September. Then the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded. Seasoned journalists were seen crying on television. No one was immune to the grief and sadness of the events of that day, including the reporters, videographers, photographers, editors and other news personnel. Suddenly friends who doubted the need for a chaplain to journalists expressed support for my work.

In the course of my research I found an organization that understood what I knew inside, journalists who cover traumatic events are profoundly affected by the events they cover. How they are affected will vary, but like other first responders the events do stay with them in some form long after the situation has resolved. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, is a leader in the field. The founder, Dr. Frank Ochberg, in his quest to teach journalists to be more sensitive in their coverage of victims of violence found that the journalists were also in need of support for what they covered.

I began an email correspondence with Dr. Ochberg my last year of studies at CTS. His research was helpful to me in the papers I wrote for classes. By the start of the war in Iraq I had come to view Frank as a friend and mentor in my journey to learn to be supportive to people who experience traumatic events. The Dart Center is not a faith-based organization, but they appreciate that I come from a faith-based approach to support. My intent has always been to serve in a ministry of presence and support to people of all faiths or none at all.

That morning ten years ago after seeing my boys off to school and driving into my office I felt helpless. I was a volunteer chaplain to journalists faced with the reality of contacts and people I didn’t know, being embedded with our troops.

Our local paper, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution ran a graphic one day. They showed a map of the Middle East. Photos of the journalists from the paper and CNN were placed over the areas they would cover. I pulled out a note pad and began my list. It was and is a prayer list of journalist who went to the Middle East to cover the war. I wrote their name and affiliation. I combed news sites of outlets around the world to add names to the list. Then alphabetized the list. My husband posted it to my website, where it remains today,with this introductory paragraph:

The following journalists are filing or have filed stories, photos and articles from Iraq. Please remember these people and their families in your thoughts and prayers as they continue to work to keep us informed.

Also, please remember the journalists around the world and in your hometown who work daily in dangerous situations and on difficult stories.

If you know of other journalists who should be listed, please send their name and affiliation along with a link to their work to: dorie@dorielgriggs.com

As the war continued I added name after name. The National Press Photographers Association found my list and posted a link to their home page. Journalists from around the world wrote to thank me for praying for them. I began to meet some of the journalists on this list through my own contacts with them and also through meetings of the Dart Center Ochberg Fellows.

There came a time when the movement of journalists in and out of the Middle East was so fluid that it was too hard for me to keep up an accurate list, but I continued to pray.

Today my prayers continue for the journalists, the soldiers, their families, the people of the Middle East, and the veterans all impacted by our involvement there.

The situation has become intensely personal for me now.

My oldest son is one of the soldiers in the Middle East. Now my son and our family are prayed for by others.

Chelle and Dorie visit with their soldier in the fall of 2012 during Family Day at Fort Stewart.photo by Stanley Leary
Chelle and Dorie visit with their soldier in the fall of 2012 during Family Day at Fort Stewart.
photo by Stanley Leary

Toilet Paper, Underwear,Technology, and an Army Mom

And I thought knob year at The Citadel was stressful.Senior cadet and mentor, "Mr. Mason" addresses Cadet Lalli during the promotion ceremony. Parents Weekend, 2007. photo by Stanley Leary
And I thought knob year at The Citadel was stressful.
Senior cadet and mentor, “Mr. Mason” addresses Cadet Lalli during the promotion ceremony. Parents Weekend, 2007. photo by Stanley Leary

This afternoon I went to our local barbecue restaurant for lunch. Not usually anything to write about. Today was special though. Right before I went into the restaurant I checked my messages. There was a quick message from my deployed son letting me know he received a couple of boxes I had sent two weeks before. The boxes included food and some boxer briefs in various sizes for his platoon members. Most of my boxes take over 3 weeks to reach him so I was surprised that they arrived so quickly.

He let me know the guys appreciated the boxers. Usually that would be the end of our correspondence. He tends to write a short note and that is it. In my reply I told him that I continue to cover their a$$es whether it is toilet paper or underwear.

Apparently my wit won him over. After going in to order my lunch, I checked the messages and found another one. Our conversation continued for a few more volleys. Nothing earth shattering. His birthday is coming up and I asked what he’d like. He never asks for anything so I am left to guess at what may be appreciated.

The conversation was short. Sitting there in the middle of Slope’s BBQ in Roswell, Georgia it struck me. I am using my Droid HD to have a conversation with my son in Afghanistan, something I would have thought inconceivable just a few years ago. A rather surreal feeling.

One of the ladies who works there asked me if I was alright. I know she was asking about my tray and wondering if I needed anything else, but for some reason her question got to me. Sitting there thinking of my son and his birthday in a few weeks, and knowing he is in a difficult place I realized, no, I am not OK. I miss my son and I worry. I told her I was corresponding with my deployed son. The tears began to well up. I tried to clear my table and go outside before I made a spectacle of myself.

The plan almost worked until the nice lady asked me for my son’s name so she could pray for him. That did it. The tears filled my eyes. She gave me a big hug right there in the middle of the restaurant. I drove home with my heart in my throat.

Some days I am pretty good at pretending that I am not worried. Today is not one of those days.

In Memory of Sgt. Aaron X. Wittman, an American Hero

Arlington National Cemetery

Friday, February 9, I arrived at Arlington National Cemetery for what I knew would be an emotional afternoon of paying tribute to a young sergeant and graduate of The Citadel, Sgt. Aaron X. Wittman. Sgt Wittman was killed in action in Afghanistan by small arms fire, January 10, while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. My son is in the same battalion, but a different company. Both Sgt. Wittman and my son are graduates of The Citadel.

The night before my hosts for the evening told me what to expect when I arrived. There would be no way for them to prepare me for what I found on my arrival, three long rows of cars all waiting to pay tribute to Sgt. Wittman. I had a hand quilted Gold Star banner donated by Memories in Stitches to deliver to the wife of the battalion commander who in turn would present the banner to Mrs. Wittman. I knew the turn out would be significant, but I could not have imagined the sea of cars and people in front of me.

Mrs. Davenport holds the Gold Star banner made and donated by Memories in Stitches.
Mrs. Davenport holds the Gold Star banner made and donated by Memories in Stitches.

A quick call to Mrs. Davenport and the guards allowed me to move closer to the front of the line. I passed the banner to Mrs. Davenport and made sure to take a photo graph for the lady who made the banner. Shortly later we were in our cars and moving slowly through the cemetery for the beginning of the graveside ceremony.

I have been to the cemetery before but each visit I am moved by the experience. As we snaked through the various sections I took time to say prayers of thanks for the life and sacrifice of each person there represented by a white marble head stone.

The line of cars had to stretch about a mile long. A silent procession of cars wound their way into place. We parked on both sides of the street and walked up a small hill to where the horse and carriage, the honor guard, and the military band awaited the arrival of the casket. I was struck by the sheer numbers of cars and people and how quiet it was there. An occasion jet passed over head. You could see other smaller services about to start as we took our place at the top of the hill. I am told about 3 or 4 services are held each day there.

Cars lined the drive leading up to the place where the ceremony began. Mourners walked u the hill in silence.
Cars lined the drive leading up to the place where the ceremony began. Mourners walked u the hill in silence.

As I approached the crowd gathered at the top of the hill I quickly met two Citadel moms toward the back of the assembled crowd. One mom I have known for a few years.The other I had not met before but we are Facebook friends. We waited for the ceremony to start.

As a soldier killed in action Sgt. Wittman was given full military honors. As a member of the Patriot Guard Riders I have attended a few military funerals at the Georgia National Cemetery, but had to refer to the website for Arlington National Cemetery to learn what it means to have full military funeral honors. The web site for the cemetery says this about the service, “enlisted members who die as a result of wounds received in action and are being interred/inurned at Arlington National Cemetery are eligible to receive full military funeral honors, to include an escort platoon, a colors team, a band, and a caisson section.”

The ceremony began quietly. As we all looked on a team of pall bearers approached the hearse to remove the casket and proceeded to place it on the caisson (horse-drawn carriage). There was a caparisoned (riderless) horse there as well. The ceremony proceeded. The band played a very moving song. I don’t know the name of it, but it was beautiful. We were all touched by the honor and dignity to the entire ceremony. The ceremony begins

At the designated time the band proceeded to the front of the caisson and led the procession down the hill to the grave site. There must have been between 100-200 people in attendance. I saw representatives of the media take a respectful place at a distance from the proceedings. The Washington Post published a write-up and photos in the paper the next day. I knew a few friends who wanted to attend and I tried to take a couple of discrete photos to capture the dignity of the service.

The band and honor guard

We stood in silence as the ceremony began under a small open tent. While we couldn’t really hear what was being said we all knew when it was time to bow our heads in prayer. I don’t remember the order of the service, but when the 21 gun salute and bugler began to play Taps,we all felt the gravity of the loss of this fine young man. Standing ready

Since 2007 when my son began at The Citadel I have learned quite a bit about the fellowship between the cadets and graduates of the Military College of South Carolina. Some say the fellowship between the graduates who wear the ring is stronger than any bond out there. I have experienced this bond in a variety of settings.

February 9 at Arlington National Cemetery was the most moving display of honor and respect I have ever experienced. I did meet a few of Aaron’s classmates that day, but the majority of graduates assembled did not know him, or his family, but they ARE his Citadel family.

My prayers are with the Wittman family.

Rest In Peace Sgt. Aaron X. Wittman.

God our Father, 
Your power brings us to birth,
Your providence guides our lives,
and by Your command we return to dust.

Lord, those who die still live in Your presence,
their lives change but do not end.
I pray in hope for my family,
relatives and friends,
and for all the dead known to You alone.

In company with Christ,
Who died and now lives,
may they rejoice in Your kingdom,
where all our tears are wiped away.
Unite us together again in one family,
to sing Your praise forever and ever.

Amen.

NOTE: A tree will be planted in memory of Sgt. Wittman along the Warrior’s Walk at Fort Stewart, February 21. Time TBA.

Please support the SGT Aaron X. Wittman, USA ’07, Memorial Scholarship

On Facebook: Aaron Wittman Foundation