Standing Post at Arlington
ANDY LEIBENGUTH/TIMES NEWS
Taps bled into the setting gray haze as the Duty Noncommissioned Officer called out: "Guard mount! Guard mount!" Settle down," the NCO commanded; "get on line: Aliganga; yo, Arthur; here sir, Fitzgibbon ... Fitzgibbon; anyone seen Fitzgibbon?"
"Yes sir," Arthur answered, "his son arrived today."
"Where is the supernumeracy?" (a person identified to stand post in the event someone on the guard roster fails to reort for duty)
"Here sir," Eckfield, replied.
The Guard Officer read the Special Orders reminding everyone tomorrow is Memorial Day.
The excitement of tomorrow's events filled the air. Troops were on foot lockers, shining brass and putting final touches on their dress uniforms.
"Hey Aliganga, you think there will be a big crowd," asked Arthur as he bounced a cotton rag off his boot.
"I remember my grandfather bringing me on Armistice Day and the whole town turned out," Sergeant Aliganga answered.
"Seems not as many come as use to. I reckon most have just plain forgotten about us," Arthur said as he dabbed a little more polish.
The radiating sun had invited a Carolina blue sky for the event. It was a perfect spring day in Virginia. In the distance, just south of Fort Myer's Chapel, military units were making their way past General Kearny's monument. In the parking lot just off Wilson Drive, families were parking and making their way to the ceremony. You could feel the excitement building; reverence in the air.
It was about to begin. The weathered speakers crackled the announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this year's Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Day Service. Please take your seats; our program will begin in five minutes."
Sound attention! The Adjutant Commanded! The Colors marched on to uplifting martial music; it was underway. Politicians made their usual speeches, and as it has been in the past, people endured them. It came time for the benediction when staffers were seen frantically using their phones. A serious gray-haired officer was heard to say, "Where is the chaplain, has anyone seen the chaplain?"
Eckfield said to Lance Corporal Fitzgibbon, "This is serious…., find Father Bliemel."
"Look! There he is," said a little girl sitting in a wheelchair next to her grandmother, as she pointed to the back of the seating area. All eyes turned to see a priest following his seasoned hickory cane to the platform.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the benediction and remain standing for the retiring of the Colors," the narrator announced.
Father Emmeran Bliemel revealed great sorrow for the fallen and their families. The power of his offerings left even combat-hardened soldiers wiping tears. His words were more than the moment; they were eternal, penetrating, yet gentle. As he offered, brethren hear me: from Shiloh, to Hamburger Hill, to the Argon, and Nasiriya, they are here, he said. From Santiago de Cube, to Andong, and the Rock Pile, they are here. They are all here. He closed his prayers with, "Heavenly Father, I pray there are no more. Lord, dear God, let there be no more."
In the assembly area, families reminisced while staff mingled. Many, so moved by Father Bliemel's prayers, wanted to thank him. Again the question, where is the chaplain? It appeared in the excitement he had left without notice.
Upon hearing the inquiry, a young Navy lieutenant said, "Here I am," apologizing for being late. He had been delayed by a traffic accident.
We are looking for the priest that gave the benediction, Father Bliemel. Hearing the name the lieutenant was visably shaken, shaken to a stammer.
"You must be mistaken; it could not have been Father Bliemel."
Just then a colonel, having overheard the young chaplain's reply, in only the tone a field-grade officer could, said, "Lieutenant, I do not know why you were late, but Father Bliemel covered you. The least you can do is acknowledge and thank him."
Now standing at parade rest, the lieutenant replied, "Sir, but you do not understand. It simply could not have been Father Emmeran Bliemel."
"Lieutenant, stand down," the colonel snapped. "I heard the man speak with my own ears."
In an equal but cautioned tone, the young chaplain answered: "Sir, Father Bliemel died with the Bloody 10th Tennessee at the Battle of Jonesboro, 31 August 1864. It could not have been him."
Stunned by what he had just been told and feeling the power of the hallowed ground he stood upon, the senior officer bowed his head.
Someone called out, "Sir, sir are you alright!" He was there, but he was not. He was back in Hue City, and Mogadishu, and Fallujah. It was sucking chest wounds, and dead children, and letters to his men's mothers. It was the never-ending stench of death in his nostrils, burning oil, and the dead animals.His past was present. As his mind retuned to the moment, he realized he, too, one day would finally be at peace. He would be home, home forever at Arlington.
In a voice that lay open years of torment, the colonel said to the lieutenant, "Son, he was here. Father Bliemel is here. They are all here. May God forgive those that put them here, because I never will!"
The players in this story are more than just characters.
Sergeant Jesse Nathanael Aliganga, USMC, 21, was killed by a car-bomb as he guarded the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, on Friday, August 7, 1998.
Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army, Patrick James Arthur, died while Prisoner of War, July 31, 1951 in Korea.
Lance Corporal Robert F. Eckfield Jr., USMC, 23, died October 27, 2005, from an indirect fire explosion in Saqlawiyah, Iraq.
Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., was killed on June 8, 1956. The first acknowledged American service death in the Vietnam War. It was reported that a U.S. airman shot him as he handed out candy to orphans in Saigon.
Lance Corporal Richard Fitzgibbon III, USMC, was Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon's son. He was tragically killed in combat on September 7, 1965, in Quang Tin, Vietnam. He was 21.
Confederate Chaplain, O.S.B. Father Emmeran Bliemel was the first Catholic chaplain to be killed in action in an American war. He died August 31, 1864, in the Battle of Jonesboro, Georgia, as he was praying with a mortally wounded officer.
To answer Sergeant First Class Patrick James Arthur, U.S. Army, a man who died rotting in a Korean prison camp waiting for someone to come and get him. No, you are not forgotten, not by everyone.
There are more than 400,000 buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
They are not forgotten; they are not gone; they are Standing Post at Arlington.