First Lieutenant, United States Army
Lester Sokler would have loved it: the 16-piece brass band, seven-rifle honor guard and antique wagon pulled by six clip-clopping horses.
And we who mourned him wanted to believe he was loving it. We envisioned him peering down from the cloudless sky above Arlington National Cemetery, admiring the pageantry that surrounded his flag-draped caisson.
"I'm not sure he expected that much commotion," said Aline Sokler, his wife of 56 years. "But I realized when they were folding the flag for me, and the band played 'Ein Keloheinu' [Hebrew for 'There Is None Like Our God'], it was everything he wanted," she said as we talked about her husband's funeral a month ago in northern Virginia.
My father-in-law's last hurrah was a benefit of military service few veterans even inquire about: a glory-filled funeral at the nation's most revered military memorial site. Most people don't realize you don't have to be a war hero or national leader to get in.
The gun salutes and trumpeting of "taps" are available to most veterans who've received an honorable discharge.
On one big condition: Most must be cremated so their urns can fit into a sprawling marble structure called a columbarium, which has room for the ashes of 50,000 veterans and their spouses.
For a full grave site, which takes valuable space, the requirements are tighter: retirement from service, death in action, or certain medals or disabilities.
It's a final thanks from Uncle Sam, at no cost to the families. Lester, who died of cancer at 90, never thought of himself as a World War II hero.
An Army Lieutenant, he would have been entitled to Arlington's awe-inspiring show of patriotism and prayer even without the Purple Heart he received after shrapnel shredded his abdomen during a raid on New Guinea.
According to Arlington's eligibility rules, all officers receive a marching band, horse-drawn caisson and an M-14-wielding rifle party, which fires three blasts in unison — blanks, of course.
Most enlisted members get pallbearers, a firing party and bugler, but not a band or caisson.
Lester's ceremony unfolded amid 624 acres of rolling hills, fields of standard arched headstones and flowering Kuzwan cherry trees.
The splendor tempered the grief. And true to Sokler family form, it inspired moments of wry humor.
Leading the march behind the caisson, Aline leaned to her daughter and quipped, "I feel like Jackie Kennedy."
Arlington's troops are members of the "Old Guard," the traditional name of the Army's 3rd Infantry ceremonial unit and presidential escort. It conducts about two dozen funerals each day.
"I think most Americans are aware that what we do is special," said Tom Sherlock, Arlington's official historian for 29 years. "But when you see it, you hear the notes of taps, the precision and the care of the men and women in the honor guard, it's a clear understanding of their respect for our veterans."
My father-in-law joins 290,000 souls whose remains rest on property once owned by the family of Robert E. Lee's wife. Joining him now are rising numbers of troops killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. There are 65 today.
Arlington expects to have room for eligible veterans and their spouses until 2060.
When the Old Guard's interment office asked Lester's son what kind of service the family wanted, he said, "Everything he's entitled to."
Alone in her Pompano, Florida, apartment this weekend, Aline still felt a glow. "They gave him the whole schmear," she said. "I think he was watching it, and appreciated it."
Lester had died in January, but the family
decided to postpone the ceremony until warmer weather. Having waited, Aline
now realizes, "It was a closure that I needed. He was finally . . ." and
her voice broke a little . . . "finally in his resting place."