Thursday, October 27, 2005

“The Resting Place Of The Dead Has Something To Say To The Living” – In Memory of Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Hay

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.


The family and comrades of Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Hay began to gather around 10:00 on Tuesday morning in the Administration Building at Arlington National Cemetery. The electronic board directed the Hay family and friends to Family Salon D on the lower level. A quick glance at the board told me that this day at Arlington, at least a score of families would be saying their final “Good-byes” to a loved one who had served our nation in time of war.

The confluence of events that led all of us – soldiers, airmen and civilians alike united in a bond of grief - to gather soberly in that room had had their climax a few weeks ago in a brief instant of gunfire and confusion. It happened a world away in Tal Afar, Iraq. My friend, Kevin Stacy, was patrolling the skies over Tal Afar, seeking out insurgents from the perch of his OH58D Kiowa helicopter. The second bird on this patrol was piloted by Kevin’s teammate and close friend, Dennis Hay. They served together in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, in a team they call “Pegasus.” As they flew low over the ground, they came under attack. The bullets missed Kevin’s aircraft, but Dennis and his co-pilot were hit by machine gun fire. Dennis was mortally wounded. He was 32 years old and leaves behind his wife, Rebecca, 5 year-old Jacob and 1 year-old Abigail – along with a coterie of extended family – parents, siblings, in-laws, aunts and uncles. In Family Room D, all struggled together - each in his own private grapplings and musings - to honor Dennis’ life and to find some comfort, solace and meaning in his all-too-sudden death.


Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.


When Kevin e-mailed me from Iraq to tell me that Dennis would be buried in a hero’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, I knew right away that I should find some way to make the trip to Virginia. Kevin would still be in Iraq and unable to be in attendance in body. Perhaps, by my attendance, I could help Kevin to be present in spirit. Also making the trip was my friend, Matt. Matt is a combat veteran aviator. Matt wanted and needed to be at Arlington for a final farewell and to: “See this thing through to the end.”

Mounted on the wall of Salon D was a large plasma TV showing in real time a scene being acted out a few hundred yards up the hill at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. The scene was one witnessed daily by thousands who come to Arlington and to the Tomb of the Unknowns – the stately and perpetual vigil that is kept by elite troops standing guard over the marble tombs, and by extension, over each grave that hallows this storied and vast expanse of gently undulating hills on the banks of the Potomac.


Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus abide with me.


Rebecca and the children arrived with her family of origin, and shortly thereafter, an employee of Arlington National Cemetery directed us to follow her upstairs and to our cars for the procession to Dennis’ gravesite. This woman, a stately and dignified Afro-American, was perfectly cast in her role – a comforting and alluring amalgam of strength, confidence, decorum, solemnity and warmth. Once everyone had made their way to the cars, we processed through the cemetery to a site overlooking the Pentagon, and where we met the ceremonial escort that included the horse-drawn caisson that carried a flag-draped casket.

We disembarked from the vehicles and stood in the drizzle as a small band of military musicians played several familiar tunes. We returned to the cars and, led by the caisson and the marching band, we continued to wend our way among the labyrinth of pathways that tie together the far-flung reaches of the cemetery. Matt and I talked as we drove past seemingly endless rows of grave markers – more than a quarter of a million markers emblematic of lives lost in each of our nation’s wars.

“Matt, just think about what we are seeing here. Each one of these stones represents dozens of family members and friends whose lives were forever altered by the sacrifice made by their loved ones.”

“Al, I wish Kevin could be here with us right now.”

“I feel as if he is. By you and me being here, we have helped to ensure that Kevin is here as well.”


Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.


The procession halted near the intersection of MacArthur Drive and Bradley Drive – history whispering to us from those signposts that Dennis was joining the end of a long and ever-lengthening line of men and women who served this nation with distinction and with courage in time of war. As we gathered under the canopy that had been erected to protect us from the worst of the wind and the rain, the band played “Abide With Me,” the traditional hymn the words of which serve as a framework for this account of Dennis’ burial.

The chaplain began his remarks by quoting Dr. Tony Evans, a pastor in Dallas: “The Resting Place Of The Dead Has Something To Say To The Living.” As the chaplain spoke, the wind and rain picked up in their intensity – Nature attuning itself to the moment and pulsating in sympathy with the torrent of emotions, thoughts and memories swirling in the minds and hearts of those who had come to bid farewell to Dennis Hay. Leaves blew. Rain fell. The wind carried the strains of “America” and “America The Beautiful” beyond our ears and across the hillside towards the Washington Monument that loomed in the distance – its stony finger piercing the lowering blanket of clouds.


I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.


The honor guard ceremonially folded the flag that had draped the casket and handed it to the ranking officer – a Major General who had once commanded a unit where Dennis had served. The General presented the flag to the family as symbolic of Dennis’s service and sacrifice. Our matronly hostess informed us that the ceremonies were now concluded and we should return to our cars. The wind and rain abated.


I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.


In two’s and three’s, family members and fellow soldiers made their way up front to stare briefly – lost in their own reveries – at the box that contains Dennis’ ashes. Matt, bedecked in his dress blue uniform and his Cavalry Officer’s Stetson hat, hung back and waited until everyone else had had their moment alone with Dennis.

“Al, there is something I need to do.”

Matt spent a few moments near the urn, and then reached down to grab a handful of mud from the ground where Dennis would soon be laid to rest. Dennis’ mother had lovingly made bows for each mourner to wear – crafted from red, white and blue material. Matt took his bow between his fingers and gently ground into its fabric the mud that he had plucked from Dennis gravesite.

“Matt, is this for you, or for Kevin back in Iraq?”

“It is for both of us.”

While I had waited for Matt to have his time alone with Dennis, I watched the lone honor guard who had remained to hold vigil. He stood ramrod straight and was the very picture of flawless military perfection – trousers creased, uniform spotless, shoes shined into mirrors that reflected the gray sky overhead.

And then I spotted the flaw. The soldier was unaware that a solitary maple leaf – brown and rain-soaked – had been blow by the wind and had alighted on the tip of his left shoe. This dead deciduous remnant had been torn from its life-giving branch too early in the season by a brief but violent storm. It lay draped across the soldier’s glistening shoe as if holding on for dear life – delaying as long as possible the moment when it would fall to the ground and moulder into dust.


Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

4 comments:

Craig Balben said...

Al:

As always I am again amazed and touched at your ability to weave together words into a story. Even though I have not met the one of whom you speak, I feel the sorrow and bitterness of death's sting. To me, it is a touching tribute for a soldier of not one family, but of the countless families that have buried those who have been lost before their time.

Thank you for those thoughtful and respectful words.

-Craig

Ghost of Galt said...

Thank you Al for being my friend during this time. Your account replayed for me and for that I give thanks. You are a gifted writer and are able to make a scene come alive. Now I understand.

Ghost

Anonymous said...

Al:
This is a wonderful piece. I hope that you are submitting your writing for publication because it really moves the reader.
Dale

Anonymous said...

Al,

This piece was penned so very well. I was especially touched as it reminded me of a phone conversation I had with Dennis some months ago. He and Barry were on the road, traveling to Colorado, at the time. He epitomised honor and valor -- those qualities we value in our soldiers. I will not forget you Dennis...ELJ