By Army Maj. Gen. Kurt J. Stein
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 15, 2010 – While flying on United Airlines last week, I overheard a telephone conversation from a gentleman seated directly behind me. His words went something like this: "Although today was an extremely sad day for me - it was absolutely the happiest day of my life, and I am proud to be an American."
This gentleman went on to talk about a funeral he attended in South Carolina, and specifically gave great kudos to the U.S. Army for the professionalism displayed at this service. He went into great detail about the funeral service itself and how it was conducted. He went on to say that Jeremiah really enjoyed serving in the Army, and now, he clearly understood why.
My ears immediately perked up when I overhead him talk about the Army in such a positive way. He boasted about the general who presented the flags to him and his family, the sharp-looking soldiers of the salute battery, the sounds of taps, how the soldiers stood at attention for such a long period of time, how the military paid for his family to fly to South Carolina, the number of letters and calls he received from Jeremiah's command, how the Red Cross assisted, and so on. He could not say enough great things about our Army.
I quickly pulled a two-star card from my briefcase and wrote him a thank-you note for his kind words about our Army. He had no clue I was in the Army since I was in civilian clothes. Within seconds, he tapped me on the shoulder and with tears in his eyes proceeded to tell me the rest of the story.
The gentleman's name is Robert Wittman. He was flying with his entire family: wife, son, daughter, Mom, Dad, grandparents and friends. They were carrying home the cremated remains of his son, Sgt. Jeremiah T. Wittman of the 4th Infantry Division, who was killed in Afghanistan on Feb. 13.
Dad told me that Jeremiah already had two tours in Iraq and ultimately gave his life in Afghanistan. While in Iraq the first time, Jeremiah's vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device, and several of his buddies were severely injured. He went on to say that his son truly loved the Army and did what he did from the heart.
His dad was a proud man. He did say that he often wondered why his son stayed in the Army after his initial attack in Iraq. Now that he saw the U.S. Army in action at the funeral, he said – as he had on the phone earlier -- that he now understands why.
Dad proudly held up the urn and boasted about how beautiful it was, and he continued to brag about the Army for all to hear. The folks around him listened with big ears and inspiration.
I must admit, although it really was a beautiful urn and a wonderful Army story - it brought a slight tear to my eye, as I, too, have a son —- a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division -- serving in Afghanistan, and this moment hit home.
Bottom line: Although the family was saddened by the loss of their son, they were all proud to be associated with the U.S. Army. I could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. Why? Simply because of the way they were treated by our Army family at the funeral. The 4th ID leadership and others involved did it up right and made a positive, lifetime-lasting impact with this family. Great job!
To top off a memorable flight, when the aircraft came to a halt the pilot announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Among us today is a great American soldier named Sgt. Jeremiah Wittman, killed in action on 13 February. Our deepest sympathy, respect and sorrow go out to the Wittman family. We ask that you honor Sergeant Wittman -- our fallen hero -- the entire Wittman family and our armed forces by remaining seated and allowing the family to depart the aircraft first.”
At that moment, you could have heard a pin drop in the aircraft, but within seconds, everyone on the aircraft was clapping as the family departed on their way.
The family departed feeling special and honored. I sat there proud to be an American soldier.
(Army Maj. Gen. Kurt J. Stein is the commanding general of U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command.)
H/T: The Armorer