Each Memorial Day since my son was deployed I remember the families of the fallen soldiers from his unit. Today as I was posting a photo of Sgt. Aaron Wittman’s tree from the Warrior’s Walk at Ft Stewart a private message showed up in my Facebook inbox.
For several years now I’ve administered Facebook groups for new parents of cadets at The Citadel. I am Facebook friends with many of the parents. The note I received today was from a mom of a rising senior. We are Facebook friends, but I don’t know that we have met in person. The last private note we exchanged was her son’s knob year.
The note I received this morning follows. It serves as a reminder that we are all connected in ways we may not fully understand. I do believe that God gives us these encounters as a way to remind us we are not alone. I do not believe this was sheer chance. There are too many connections that brought strangers together for it to be sheer luck.
Military families, especially on this weekend, share a special bond. I asked Melanie for her permission to share her touching story here and she agreed. I post this story today to honor these families and others who are grieving, especially this weekend.
From Melanie Cannon, Citadel mom and Gold Star wife of SMSGT. Robert Cannon:
“I’m in DC this week for Memorial Day and while we were at Arlington Cemetery noticed the marker beside my husbands is for Aaron Wittman. That blew me away since there are over 400,000 markers there and the Citadel grad that you share info about/scholarship, etc. is buried next to my husband. What are the chances of knowing or knowing about another person buried right beside your loved one at Arlington? I think they call those type of things God winks? Just thought I would share. It was the first time we had visited Arlington since my husbands marker was erected. There was a young man from Virginia that came up, while we were there, and laid a coin on Aaron’s grave and we spoke to him about it.”
A little about Robert Cannon:
“My husband was a flight engineer, Senior Master Sergeant in the Air National Guard- from Charlotte NC. He was killed in an aviation accident. They were conducting a MAFFS mission in South Dakota July 1,2012.”
This Memorial Day by all means enjoy time with your family and friends, but I do hope in the midst of your time together you would take at least a few minutes to remember the people who gave everything so that we may freely gather.
My thoughts and prayers are with all the Gold Star families who are missing their loved one this weekend.
Last week I traveled to Charleston for the Monuments Men event on campus. Several months ago Professor Tiffany Silverman asked me to serve on the advisory committee for the event. It was a great way to learn more about the Fine Arts program at The Citadel and to meet some fascinating people.
It was a big event weekend in Charleston and the hotel rates were super high. I am grateful to my good friends for letting me stay at their home in Johns Island. Having the free accommodations meant I could stay through the weekend for the celebratory gathering after the event on Saturday.
Like most visits to The Citadel my time was packed with activities. Top on my priority list after attending the Monuments Men lecture by the author, Robert Edsel, was to finally meet Duane Wittman, father of SGT Aaron X. Wittman who was killed last year in Afghanistan. Aaron was a Citadel graduate and soldier in the same battalion as my son. If you’ve followed my blog you’ll know I attended the burial for Aaron at Arlington National Cemetery last winter. Since that time I’ve been in touch with Aaron’s friends and Duane to help get word out about the scholarship set up in Aaron’s name. The Wittman’s gave Aaron’s ring to the Band of Gold program at The Citadel. His ring was melted down and is part of the rings the Class of 2014 wear. Finally getting to meet Duane and a couple of Aaron’s friends was a big highlight of my weekend. They were in town for the Cooper River Bridge Run. About 150 people ran or walked in Aaron’s memory this year.
I managed to get some fun visits with cadets in as well. Some were planned an others were spontaneous meetings on campus. I was sure to get photos of cadets I know so I could share them with their moms. I also took a ton of photos of the parade Friday afternoon in the hope their family would catch a glimpse of their cadet. Friday evening I spent dinner with two knobs. It was fun to get to know these young men. After dinner and dropping them off on campus I gave rides to a few cadets who were heading to town. While they appreciate the ride, it is fun for me to meet these cadets and learn about them.
Saturday was a nice quiet day. The weather was great so I spent a few hours at Folly Beach writing before I had to get ready for the party. It was a terrific evening. We were hosted by the advisory committee chair at their home near the battery. I had a great time meeting the other guests including cadets from the Fine Arts program. I even had the chance to chat with Bill Murray. The basketball game was one so we talked basketball. I was thrilled to learn he knows of my alma mater, the University of Richmond Spiders. Unfortunately I think I was a bit too chatty and BIll soon made his excuses and headed for the food.
My traditional last stop before leaving Charleston is brunch at the Marina Variety Store. This trip was no different. I then go to campus for a rest stop and usually head home. This year a variation of my tradition included giving some knobs a ride into town and then three back to campus. It was a fitting end to a great weekend.
I am not sure when I will be able to visit Charleston again. Right before my trip last week I received a call that will change my life, and that of our family, for the next year. Back in January I interviewed for a residency position in the chaplains office of the VA hospital in Decatur, GA. When I interviewed they told me the funding should come through in February. Since it was April I had assumed they filled the four spots. It turned out they had not. The supervisor called last Wednesday morning and offered me one of the four residency positions. I will begin June 2. (that is, if I pass the physical and background check)
Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE is a program people go through for a variety of reasons. I’ve wanted to do this for years. It does take a lot of time and can be very demanding. Until now family obligations have kept me for applying. I’ve framed the support for Citadel parents as a type of chaplaincy. For years I’ve offered encouragement and support to journalists in much the same way as a chaplain would. This will be an opportunity to be in a group environment to learn and to grow. The VA is the only program I applied to. I felt the experience there, to work in an environment with veterans, will enhance the experiences I’ve had to date with members of the military.
I am feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness. I am excited for the opportunity and nervous because it will be a whole new experience. Ultimately I hope this experience will help me be a more informed and effective caring presence to the people I am in contact with in various roles.
The ring for the Corps of Cadets isn’t just any college ring. They have to earn the right to wear it. Unfortunately for some the cost of the ring stands in their way. For years the alumni have stepped up to the plate to help the few cadets who need it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
· 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Life is something that happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” John Lennon
I first read that phrase on a card my good friend, Chelle Chaudoin, sent me once in college. I had just had a break up with a man I thought I was in love with and she wrote a note of encouragement on the card.
That phrase came to mind as I am sitting in the airport in Richmond, Virginia reflecting on my weekend.
Over a month ago I received an invitation to attend the, February 9, 100 Years of Spider Basketball celebration at my alma mater, the University of Richmond. From 1977 -1981 I was a manager for the men’s basketball team and also worked as an intern in various areas in the athletic department as a student. This was my first official invitation to an athletic department event in 30 years.
The plane reservations were made right away and arrangements were made to stay with a good friend, for what was to be a quick fun weekend reunion with long time friends. When I talked to my friend about the travel plans she told me the day game was also her father’s birthday. This would be the first birthday without him since he died in July of last year. Already the weekend was changing shape.
At some point in January another event happened that profoundly changed what was to be a fun-filled weekend, an email from the Family Readiness Group of the 3-69 AR at Fort Stewart informing family members that one of our soldiers, SGT. Aaron X. Wittman, was killed in action in Afghanistan. Shortly after this email The Citadel related Facebook groups lit up with the tragic news. Sgt. Wittman was graduate of The Citadel and the son of a graduate.
I was numb at the news. My son is in the same battalion, but not in the same company or area of the country. He is also a Citadel graduate. Sgt. Wittman was also from Chester, Virginia near Richmond. Perhaps I could pay my respects to the family during my visit.
Once the obituary was released I realized my plans for a fun weekend would include a very solemn occasion as well, the burial of Sgt. Wittman at Arlington National Cemetery. My Army mom’s heart breaks for the Wittman family. From all accounts Aaron was a wonderful young man. Tributes were posted to YouTube by family members and his unit in Afghanistan. There is also a video of his delegate from Virginia moving to adjourn in the memory of Sgt. Wittman. Citadel grads and parents began to post their condolences to various Facebook groups. I felt I needed to do what I could to attend the burial at Arlington.
The Family Readiness Group (FRG) Leader for the 3-69 is also the wife of the battalion commander. She is the one I met in January to go with me to the Exchange to purchase needed items for the 3-69. I contacted her to let her know I would be at the burial service. She told me she would be there with a rear detachment officer. We made plans to meet at Arlington. A few Citadel moms wrote to let me know they too would be attending the ceremony.
A couple of weeks before the trip I saw a photo of a beautiful Gold Star quilt made by Memories in Stitches. Her website said she makes banners for Gold Star families. After a few emails she said she would send a banner for the FRG leader to present to Mrs. Wittman.
Through a network of Citadel grads a graduate and father of graduates learned I would be in DC and offered to host me the evening before the burial. An amazing offer since we had never met. It was set, I was flying into Richmond renting a car driving to DC and attending the burial.
A few more surprises slipped in.
My long time friend and fellow Richmond grad, Joe Williams, lives in the DC area. We’ve talked for a while about collaborating on a project. He was free the night I arrived so we had an extended visit/meeting over dinner.
My host family for the night were extremely hospitable. After a great nights sleep I was on to DC to spend a few hours admiring the sights, that is until another synchronistic meeting came together. I called a couple who have a first year cadet, called a knob, at The Citadel. They were both home and invited me to join them at their home for visit and brunch. I met this family Matriculation Weekend at The Citadel and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them. I was about to go through a very difficult ceremony. Spending sometime with a delightful couple made a terrific buffer for the more emotionally difficult experience that was coming next.