- - Sunday, May 28, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Rifle shots cracked the stillness of the sunny, unusually warm autumn afternoon in the 21-gun salute for the fallen naval officer. The lone bugle’s mournful notes of taps rang strong and somber and then drifted through the clear sky as we stood in silence to honor both the man and his country.

On Nov. 2, 2001, nearly eight weeks after his death, U.S. Naval Capt. Gerald Francis DeConto was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is within sight of the spot where he was brutally murdered by terrorist thugs on Sept. 11. All it takes to view Jerry’s unlikely battlefield from his final resting place is to slightly lift your head and focus your eyes just beyond the trees and toward the Pentagon. Not since the Civil War have U.S. soldiers been buried so close to their battlefields on American soil. It is a sobering thought.

As my husband and his former Naval Academy buddies gathered beside Jerry’s graveside to say goodbye to their classmate, I knew we were standing on sacred ground. The thousands of simple white headstones flooding the gently rolling landscape are the poignant reminders of the men and women buried there, many whose lives abruptly and violently ended in their quest to maintain our freedom. Beyond the sloping hill that gracefully melts into the Potomac River, a steady stream of cars, bikers and joggers passed by, seemingly unaware that another warrior for their freedom was being laid to rest that day.

I also thought about the many times Jerry had been at sea, had trained to face the enemy, had said goodbye and hello to his family over the years. Who would have ever believed that he would be killed, not during a war he had prepared for, but within the borders of our own country — within the fortress and safety of the Pentagon?

As I watched his stoic and heartbroken mother receive the impeccably folded U.S. flag that had been draped over his gray casket, I wondered at the irony of his death. This mom, this wonderful woman who raised her son to be a patriot, had once beamed with pride at the news of his acceptance to Annapolis. She had undoubtedly shed a few tears each time he set off to sea and worried about him during his tours to the Mediterranean. But on Sept. 11, Mrs. DeConto had no reason to worry: Her son was safe within the walls of the Pentagon as the duty officer of the Navy Command Center.

Mowed down by foreign terrorists inside the United States Pentagon.

Even now, nearly 16 years later, it is difficult to fathom.

Jerry was murdered at the hands of terrorists less than 60 miles from the United States Naval Academy. Until 9/11, such evil atrocities were attempted only in Tom Clancy’s thrilling patriotic novels. Yet, a few hours before the burial, there we were in the majestic and beautiful chapel of the Naval Academy, attending a funeral that not only honored this brave captain, but also paid tribute to the many civilians who were obliterated by foreign ruffians just a few miles away.

As we stood to hear Rear Adm. Albert Church read a proclamation from President Bush awarding Capt. DeConto the Purple Heart, I was painfully aware that my own children would grow up in an America that was no longer a safe haven from dreadful acts of foreign aggression.

I thought about the many little children, and moms and dads, and husbands and wives who are suffering over the loss of loved ones because our cities became the playground of international terrorists. I wondered, during the moving tribute given this brave captain by his elder brother, how it must feel to lose a family member because terrorism has, for far too long, been tolerated. Today, I think about the family members of the most recent victims of terrorists in England and Egypt. And I wonder how many more of our own military men and women we will be paying tribute to next year on Memorial Day — men and women in uniform who are unaware of the sacrifice they will make all too soon.

On this Memorial Day, as we honor Jerry and all others who have given their lives so that we might enjoy ours in freedom, may we strive to be worthy of their sacrifice, pledging to fight for liberty in our own way through civil discourse and peaceful activism. And may the words spoken at Jerry’s memorial service by his Annapolis roommate, Carl Rehling, inspire our gratitude for those who bravely stand in harm’s way:

“On September 11th, Captain DeConto stood the watch. We are here to say, ‘Captain DeConto your watch stands relieved. Relieved by those you have served with, guided and led. Shipmate, you stand relieved. We have the watch.’”

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at [email protected]

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