Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Wilson was buried at Arlington Cemetery on July 12 with all the ceremony due a Marine killed in Afghanistan. I was honored to be there. But for me, the events leading up to the ceremony at Arlington honored Cpl. Wilson as much as did the ceremony itself because they came from his fellow citizens, who recognized his service and sacrifice on their behalf.
This was not the case when I first encountered Cpl. Wilson and his family in March. I never knew him in life, and when I wrote about him in this newspaper on Memorial Day, I had yet to meet his family. I wrote only about how I had witnessed the last of a series of painful events to which they had been subjected in making the trip to Dover, Del., to meet his casket as it returned home. A long day of overbooked flights and insensitive U.S. Air employees culminated in a scene at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where an airline representative, with the grief-stricken family on full public display beside her, begged indifferent passengers for volunteers to give up their seats for the family of a young man who had died for his country. I wrote that I thought it demonstrated our national detachment from the human cost of our current wars and how we need to recognize and respect the Cpl. Wilsons who serve our country.
I never dreamed the story of the Wilsons and my plea for support for our troops and their families would spark such an overwhelming response. Among the many remarkable actions it inspired, a retired Air Force and Southwest Airlines pilot sent it to the chairman of Southwest, who disseminated it through his company to make sure no military family suffers a similar indignity. If you are one of the scores of people who posted my article on your blog or your Facebook page or wrote to me to share that you felt the same way, please know that you also did good far more immediate and personal than simply sharing the message. You provided support to the Wilsons at another milestone in their grief.
Unbeknownst to us, my column and your responses appeared at exactly the time when Justin should have returned home, a date for which the Wilsons had lived for months but that now brought only another reminder of their loss. Mrs. Wilson says we will never know how much we helped her.
I was honored to be the intermediary between the Wilsons and those who reached out to them. Many missives, like this one from a retired Marine, surpassed anything I could write: "When I think of the Marine Corps, it's not of the Birthday Ball and everyone in their dress blues and medals. It's of a tired, dirty lance corporal trudging up a hill, doing what he has been told to do by his corporal, sergeant, or lieutenant, knowing that they are looking out for him, because they're Marines too, and that's what we do.And he probably wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I didn't know Justin, but I have known many like him. He's the Marine Corps, past, present, and future. And he is now in the best of company. That is small comfort, I know. But no man or woman can have finer friends nor family than Marines, this I know for certain. And if the worst happens, he or she was with friends and family when it happened."
As uplifting as this is, it is not the end of the story. In June, the Wilsons decided that Justin's remains should be interred in Arlington National Cemetery, where he would be "in the best of company."
The Wilsons had never been to Washington, so I volunteered to help with arrangements. I knew it could not be a happy occasion, but I hoped it could be a good one. I had an idea of what would be best, but I thought it likely that most of my ideas would prove infeasible, with such short lead time, at the height of the tourist season.
I have never been so grateful to be proved wrong. I never did more than ask for information, but everyone responded by volunteering assistance, and their help transformed the event. It began when I asked to rent the guest apartment in my building for the Wilsons, only to learn that it had just been closed permanently. The management not only reopened the apartment, but offered it at no cost for as long as the Wilsons needed it.
This generosity was matched by the extraordinary hospitality a hotel across the street extended to Cpl. Wilson's widow and her family and, on the day of the burial, to everyone who attended the ceremony.
Cpl. Wilson eloped with his fiancee, Hannah, just before he deployed to Afghanistan. Now, at age 20, she is a widow. The current wars have created several thousand young widows. If you would console yourself with the idea that these young women were married such a short time and have so much life still ahead of them, that the loss they feel is somehow mitigated, you should meet Hannah McVeigh-Wilson. She was brave enough to marry a Marine headed for combat who told her he didn't want to wait until he returned because, in case he didn't come home, he wanted to know he'd had all the experiences he could have in life, and one of the most important was to marry her. It tears at the heart to see her living with that legacy and loss.
The staff of the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City understood this and not only made their hotel affordable for her extended family so she was surrounded by support, but also made innumerable extra gestures of hospitality - which they also extended to her in-laws. Remarkably, the three Ritz employees most involved attended the ceremony at Arlington.
Furthermore, the hotel made a very generous offer for a luncheon after the ceremony, without which there would have been no gathering. The number of guests started small, and as the number gradually increased until it had quadrupled, the hotel never changed the terms, instead only increasing its generosity in ways large and small. The event manager explained, "We looked at each other and said, 'How can we not do this?' " Consequently, after the service, 80 people - including members of Cpl. Wilson's unit, just back from Afghanistan - celebrated his life together at an elegant banquet.
This wonderful fellowship of family and friends was the most appropriate culmination of seeing Justin to his final resting place.But other special events preceded it. A number of people - none of whom would wish public recognition - expended great effort to get his family special White House, Capitol and Pentagon tours along with coveted VIP tickets for the Friday night ceremony at the Marine Barracks. The gunnery sergeant in charge of Marine burials at Arlington, among others, always took the time to answer my innumerable questions - questions that a civilian, nonfamily member normally would not be asking, but because the family asked me, I asked for them. No one questioned my role, as well they might have; they just helped.
Do not draw the wrong conclusion, that any of this it took any special connections or institutional influence, that the situation was fundamentally any different from the one when volunteers did not step forward to help the Wilsons at the airport. Someone commented to me, "Look at the difference one person can make." Not true, it took many individuals stepping forward, individuals who had no thought of profit or recognition, many of whom still have not met the Wilsons or McVeighs. But we received the only reward we might have sought: Afterward, Mrs. Wilson said that though it was a sad event, it was also the most enjoyable time the family had had since the day Justin died.
But ultimately there was one person who did make all the difference: Lance Cpl. Wilson. When the Wilsons thanked me, I replied, "No thanks necessary; you earned this." Hannah corrected me. "No," she said, "Justin earned it." This brings me to my favorite of all the messages I received, from the director of the Army Wounded Warrior Program, who wrote, "I think Corporal Wilson would have been proud of your words, your actions and your generosity." I hope he's right; I hope I am the kind of citizen the Lance Cpl. Wilsons of our country would be proud of. I hope we all are, always.
Colleen M. Getz works in the NATO policy office of the Department of Defense.
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