By Clay Riness  

A few days after this past Christmas, we got a call from family informing us that my 91-year-old father-in-law, a Marine veteran of WWII who served in the Pacific theater with distinction, was too weak to get out of bed and was being taken by ambulance to the hospital. There, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Further, he had suffered a mild heart attack. His physical strength had been waning over the past couple of years. We all understood what would someday come.

After a series of tests the next day, the doctors informed the family there was really nothing more they could do for him and recommended he be admitted to hospice. A few days later, a text from family revealed that he had been put on morphine. A few hours later, he was gone from us. It was his time. He was a beautiful and generous man, and by the enormous number of people who attended the visitation, it’s clear he was loved, admired and respected by many. And, we got through it, because that’s what families do. We gather, grieve and celebrate the life of one so precious to us.

During the war, his unit was slated to be deployed to Iwo Jima, but he fell ill with the mumps a day before and they deployed without him. After five days in the infirmary, he was assigned to another unit and then deployed to Okinawa where he was thrust into ferocious combat. He was reluctant to speak of it. He never liked being referred to as a hero. “We just did our job,” he would say. “The real heroes were those boys who never returned home.” Typical of that generation, but let me tell you, he sure was a hero to me.

The funeral helped with some closure, and when the procession arrived at the site of interment, it was greeted by three active-duty Marines in dress blues, standing in silence at full attention … an honor guard. At graveside, the pastor delivered a few comforting words and a prayer. Then, from up the hill, two Marines turned and made the slow, formal march to his flag-draped casket in single file, each taking a stand at one end. They raised their white-gloved right hands in a long salute and then purposefully picked up the flag by its corners and held it vertically, facing the family in silence. The third Marine, who had remained on the hill, played taps. Upon completion of the bugle call, the two ceremoniously and meticulously folded the flag.

Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any more moving, one of the Marines took a 45-degree turn, facing my 87-year-old mother-in-law, and took a step forward. Leaning over, he handed her the flag and quietly said, “The president of the United States thanks you for your service to this great country.”

At that point, there wasn’t a single dry eye in the crowd. The two Marines returned to the top of the hill, slowly as they had come, and joined their fellow soldier. I thanked them for attending, telling them it meant a great deal to the family. “No, thank you,” all three responded.

That tells you something. Once a Marine … always a Marine. It was clear that this great man, who had embraced and loved me as a son, was a hero to them, too.