The morning mists at Arlington National Cemetery were still visible as I stood watching the slow precision of the officers folding the U.S. flag. Everyone stood completely still as the ceremonial team of the United State Capitol Police (USCP) carried out this final symbolic act of a grateful nation. This funeral took place in the early 1990s. I don’t recall who it was for. But I do know the deceased had served in the armed forces and then completed a second career with the USCP, protecting and serving the U.S. Congress.
When the two officers completed folding the flag, the officer holding the flag turned and ceremoniously stepped toward a man in a gray suit who was standing at attention waiting to receive the flag. The officer handed Senator John Glenn the flag and saluted him. Senator Glenn saluted the officer back. Senator Glenn then turned, walked around the casket to a woman seated in front of the casket, bent down toward her, and with both hands gently handed her the folded flag. As she grasped the flag Senator Glenn spoke: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. State Senate and the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and the United State Congress.”
I had watched this entire event from my position about 25 yards away, standing quietly by myself near a parked police van. When Senator Glenn was done he walked over and stood next to me. I hadn’t expected it. It was just him and I standing there in silence as the ceremony continued and the burial team’s bugler began playing taps. As the sad and final note of taps began to fade, the Senator broke the silence: “You know,” he said in a quiet and solemn tone, as he stared out across the sea of gravestones, “I’ve heard that many times, and yet every time always seems like the first emotionally.” The Senator had come here to Arlington that morning because he had known the deceased U.S. Capitol Police officer and volunteered to present the flag.
As the ceremony ended, the Senator asked me where I was from and we began talking. I’d seen the Senator around Capitol Hill a number of times since I’d arrived in 1991, but I’d never really had the chance to talk one-on-one with him, so I took this opportunity. I knew what most people knew: that he’d been an astronaut and, of course, a Senator. But I didn’t know much more. I remember at one point asking him about his military career:
“So you were a Navy pilot?”
“Oh no, I was an Marine Corp Aviator.”
“Oh, so the Marine Corp actually has Aviators too?”
Turning toward me and speaking through a playful smile, “I didn’t know there was any other type of Aviator.”
I chuckled at this good humored shot at the Navy. The rivalry was still alive with this retired Marine Corp Colonel. We stood there talking for about another 5 minutes, and during that brief time I remember feeling a deep sense of admiration and inspiration.
Until he left Congress in 1999, I would see Senator Glenn around the Hill on a number of occasions. He was always friendly and always seem to remember me and our brief conversation that morning in Arlington. He would typically stop for a moment to shake my hand and exchange a few words. It was always a real pleasure.
John Glenn was a true American hero and a powerful inspiration for any aspiring leader. In this uniquely uncertain time in American history, we need to look to the lives of people like John Glenn as the example of what truly made America a great nation.
He will be missed.
(John Glenn passed away on December 8, 2016. He was 95)