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Zachary Ehren Headshot

Thirty Words to Honor a Fallen Veteran

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I sit in the break room rehearsing the lines over and over. The fluorescent lights, white walls, drinking fountains and lunch tables make me feel like I am sitting in my high school's cafeteria. But instead of sitting with my old classmates, I am surrounded by men in uniform and VFW members.

The next service will be for a WWII veteran.

"Say the first line 5 times. Then say the second line 5 times. Then say the last line 5 times," Cooper says to me.

This flag is presented by a grateful nation...This flag is presented by a grateful nation...This flag is presented by a grateful nation...This flag is presented by a grateful nation...This flag is presented by a grateful nation,

it is an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one... it is an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one... it is an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one... it is an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one... it is an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.

Please accept my sincere condolences. Please accept my sincere condolences. Please accept my sincere condolences. Please accept my sincere condolences. Please accept my sincere condolences.

I did as he said and by the time I finish saying all three lines, five times each, totaling fifteen lines, my brain is too tired to think about the anxiety. But, nonetheless, the anxiety is there. I can feel my stomach continually tighten underneath my dress greens.

"Don't worry; I was nervous the first time too. But the nerves go away and you will be able to say it just fine."

The sound of Cooper's words comfort me but I can only half listen to what he is saying. I am repeating the lines over and over in my head. The thoughts are so loud and fast that everything outside of my head sounds like background noise.

This flag is presented by a grateful nation,

I had participated in countless veterans' funerals in the past two weeks. Sometimes there were more than four in one day. I was able to make it through so many services because I did not have to look or interact with the bereaved during the last two weeks. My sole responsibility was to take the flag off of the coffin with my fellow soldier performing the funeral with me. I would then fold the flag into a perfect triangle. My partner would tuck the other end of the flag into the corners and make sure it looks like a giant, blue paper football covered with stars. The flag would then be taken from me and presented to the next of kin.

it is an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.

Folding the flag was more work than presenting it, but I did not have to speak to the next of kin when folding. I did not have to look into their eyes and see their sorrow. I did not have to hold myself back from giving them a hug and trying to comfort them without just the use of my words.

All of my anxiety and continuous repeating of the lines make the thirty words that need to be said feel like I am required to publicly state the entire WWII memoir, With the Old Breed.

Please accept my sincere condolences.

It is time to make the way down to the benched service area where the funerals are performed. Polacek, Cooper and I wait at the end of the driveway for the family to arrive. The funeral procession shows up and we salute the hearse as it approaches. I can see the flag on top of the coffin through the windows as it passes. We wait for the pallbearers to unload the coffin, then the three of us drop our salute.

I unconsciously went through all of these moves while I consciously kept repeating the words over and over in my head.

This flag is presented by a grateful nation,

Polacek and I walk to opposite ends of the coffin where we raise another salute when Cooper begins to play taps. My heart gradually begins to beat faster.

it is an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.

Once taps finishes, Polacek and I pick up the flag while my heart is under the impression that my body is running.

Please accept my sincere condolences.

Polacek begins folding.

This flag is presented by a grateful nation... This flag is presented by a grateful nation... This flag is presented by a grateful nation...

Each fold he gets closer to me.

Thisflagispresentedbyagratefulnationforthehonorableandfaithfulservicerenderedbyyourlovedone

My heart thinks my body is in a full sprint.

This flag by a grateful nation service and honorable presentation of your loved one

Both my mind and heart are on overdrive.

Please accept my MOST HEARTFELT AND MOST HUMBLE CONDOLENCES YOU WILL EVER HAVE FROM SOMEBODY! EVER!

Polacek finishes folding the flag and I tuck in the corners. I manage to see past the numerous television screens blaring different messages in my brain, and notice Polacek giving me a look. The look is telling me that I do not need to worry and that the next forty-five seconds will go exactly how the Army would expect.

I take the flag and my head goes silent. No words. No lines.

The next of kin, a middle aged man that is probably the veteran's son, is sitting in front of where I am standing and I approach him slowly. I do not have any courage to look at his face and I do not dare look anywhere near his eyes.

I kneel down in front of him.

................................

All of the words I had countlessly repeated in my head are lost in the cosmos of my brain. The motors are burnt out and no words come out of my mouth. Time ceases to exist. I heard and felt every heartbeat. Every pair of eyes in attendance at the funeral feel like individual sources of heat radiating in my direction.

I look up and see this man's eyes. My heart aches when I see his sorrow as he is holding back tears.

The eternal five to ten seconds end and I know something needs to be said. My mouth starts moving without any assistance from my brain.

"The service from your loved one will never be forgotten from the continued memories by you and your family. Keep him in your heart and always cherish the service he provided for all of us to live comfortably and enjoy our beautiful country. Please accept my sincere condolences."

At least I had managed to get the last part correct.

I stood up and saluted him, then marched back towards the end of the driveway where Polacek and Cooper were waiting for me. While marching, I go over the last five minutes in my head. I was disappointed with myself that I had a mental collapse and blanked on almost everything I had rehearsed prior to the service. But, I am happy that what I did say was something that came from my heart and not was written on a card that was issued to me.

When witnessing a veteran's funeral, a person will notice that every move is made with robotic precision. This is created by the discipline the military has taught every soldier from their first day of service. Nonetheless, every soldier that has the honor of performing this service can feel the humanity and the strong emotions that are tied to that task. The faces of the soldiers are expressionless, but their hearts are closely connected to each veteran that has passed away. Every day countless veterans leave us, and every person that has served in uniform mourns their loss.

I do not know the person that is being buried at Rittman National Veteran's Cemetery this morning. But I know that this person fought in one of the greatest wars our world has ever known, so my country and the rest of the world would not have to live under fascist rule. For that, I am forever grateful.