The lessons of funerals and closure

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I hate rituals. Always have. They seem like uncomfortable relics of the past. Having spoken with a number of family members about unaccounted for war dead and missing soldiers, I understand better the need for ceremony around deaths. 

A closed casket can sometimes mean the end of a family – finger pointing and blame between husbands and wives as the ignorance of what happened to a child seeps into their world. Tying up loose ends dogs people every day in their lives.

Closure in a death is essential for the living to go on with what little of joy remains in life. Imagine never knowing what happens to a family member – are they coming home THIS Christmas, or will I see them on THIS birthday.

Families of unaccounted for Prisoners of War and Missing in Action know this grinding pit of the guy feeling every day. 

Being a military writer gives a view to incredible sites – aircraft, men and women at work and accomplishments. It also brings somber, sobering moments. Standing in Emmie Ard’s dinning room and talking to her family about the loss of her son in during the Vietnam War –  Army helicopter pilot Chief Warrant Officer Randy Ard – was grim some 34 years after he died. 

A rated Army helicopter warrant officer pilot, Randy Ard disappeared after his OH-58 Kiowa was shot down in Laos on March 7, 1971. His family only knew he was missing for years. No body was recovered, and there were only sketchy details passed onto the family about why Ard’s small helicopter was shot down or what they were doing that day in Southeast Asia. 

Randy Ard had been a little over three months shy of his 20th birthday. The Army needed helicopter pilots at this point in the Vietnam conflict, and Ard actually turned down a chance at going to the U.S. Air Force Academy because the Army promised him he would be a pilot, his mother told me. 

A few years after the shoot down, in 1975, the Ard’s had moved from up from Florida, settling in Albertville, Alabama. In 1978, the Pentagon officially declared Ard dead. 

There were more than three decades of pain etched into Emmie Ard’s face. And I will never forget her telling me “When we moved, I always thought ‘How will (Randy) find us if he comes home? How will he get back here?’ … I always looked for him to just come through the door on Thanksgiving or Christmas … that’s what a mother does.

Randy Ard never sat down at his mother’s table again. His death in Laos was confirmed by Pentagon lab technicians in December 2004. Ard was buried in March 2005.

Having lived in Air Force towns – I grew up in the shadow of Robins Air Force Base, Georgia – and wrote about fighter pilots and wars of the past, I thought myself accustomed to POW/MIA tales. I has spoke to brave men held in North Vietnamese prison camps, and fighter pilots worked over by the North Koreans and I had talked with men who spent time in German Stalags after falling out of burning aircraft plummeting from the sky. 

There is a national holiday – POW/MIA Day – to recognize the sacrifices of families of the missing and former prisoners of war, which is the third Friday in September and has been recognized since 1990.

Many military communities, especially Air Force ones, have a ceremony marking this event. However, the majority of the public know little about it, and as the Vietnam War recedes further into history, I fear the ceremony will be silenced by time and history. There are 1,645 unaccounted for missing from the Vietnam War alone, and I have watched that number be whittled down year after year from around 4,000 some 20 years ago.

Technology and agreements with the ruling party of Vietnam have helped ease the pain of many families. By contrast there are some 73,000 missing from World War II, and the fear is these will never receive a proper accounting. For a complete list go to: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/summary_statistics/.

For the Ards, that day in March 2005, the pain eased a bit. I had never faced a mother who had spent 34 years living in hope that the reported death of her boy was some Pentagon mistake.

A darkness washed over Emmie Ard’s face while she spoke with me and it all the war stories and news reports about budgets and missiles and colonels and generals seemed millions of miles away. There was nothing anybody could say to this woman who gave up her son at – as the military lists him – the age of 19.7. 

It dawned on me that day the importance of closure for some people. The ritualistic need for coffins and funerals and the ability to actually see somebody laid to rest. I am an only child and never paid much attention to funerals, other than when I would have to attend a ceremony. 

 Now I realize what an open coffin means to a person who might lose their daughter or son or father or mother. I realize that a closed casket – or NO casket – can really be traumatizing. I would hope no family has to endure these pains of loss again.

However, war and the mistake of conflict will see me wrong. 

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