As a military chaplain, I’m often invited to pray or speak in Veterans Day festivities. However, I attend few observances that show the unselfish service of the veteran better than a military retirement service. In honor to nearly 2 million military retirees in this country, I offer this Veterans Day column as a way of giving you a glimpse into the military retirement ceremony.
While the order of service varies between branches, and even between bases, I always begin the event with a prayer I wrote from the faith tradition of the one retiring. Sometimes the prayer is simply a poem or nonreligious wisdom, but I present it as a way of honoring his service, not mine.
Immediately after my prayer, the emcee (usually a junior officer) calls all military members to attention and reads a copy of the retirement orders. The commander then presents the retiree with the medals earned during his last closing years of service. She also reads a thank-you letter from the president of the United States.
Then, in what might sound like a eulogy, the commander gives a speech highlighting the retiree’s career. Afterwards, the honoree comes to the podium to present a bouquet of flowers to family. He attempts to follow that act with a flowery speech of his own, but I must tell you that few retirees hold it together during this emotional oratory.
If dry eyes remain, the honor guard will often change that when the ceremonial unit of four unfurls a folded flag.
In a few minutes, they stretch the flag across the podium for inspection. Once the color guard commander approves the flag, they refold it. The first fold is twice lengthwise and is made so taut that the snapping sound sometimes startles visiting civilians.
By the time the flag is refolded into its triangular shape, it is packed full of symbolism. The folds are meant to conceal the blood-red stripes and leave nine shining stars exposed on the double-sided blue canvas. Thus folded, the implication is that God’s creation of stars and sky is the only thing to be treasured.
The sergeant gives the flag to the commander who presents a wrinkle-free flag to the new retiree. His acceptance cues me back to the podium for the invocation. Afterwards, a round of hardy handshaking usually dries the tears while I find a place in the front of the cake line.
During the last ceremony I attended, I couldn’t help but realize that I am in the zone for retirement. When I hinted to my schoolteacher wife, Becky, that she might want to think about planning my retirement party, she reminded me that she too is approaching that day.
All of this has me thinking about placing a pithy little bumper sticker on our car. Usually, I’m not fond of such stickers, most especially the idea that English is the only language of freedom, but I can’t help but admire this one:
If you can read this…thank a teacher. If you can read this in English . . . thank a veteran.
Good marital compromise, don’t you think?