On Wednesday, many of us attended the funeral of Dick Hochman z”l, father of longtime Ramat Shalom congregant, Jeff Hochman. The funeral began with military honors – a fitting tribute to Dick’s service and dedication to the United States Army. Members of the Honor Guard saluted Dick’s casket as taps was played. A Flag Folding Ceremony, followed. During this ceremony, the US Flag that drapes the coffin is meticulously folded by members of the Honor Guard into a triangle, taking on the appearance of the cocked hat worn by the soldiers who served under George Washington. Only the stars of the flag are visible upon completion of the ceremony, a reminder of our national motto, “In God We Trust.” Laura, Jeff’s mom, proudly accepted the flag in honor of Dick’s service to our country and held it close throughout the rest of the funeral.
I’ve watched the rendering of military honors many times. It is always powerful. With the exception of a few words spoken by the member of the Honor Guard who presents the flag to the next of kin, nothing is said. Nothing needs to be said. The military ritual speaks for itself.
Jeff’s dad, like so many of our veterans, was extremely proud of his service. He earned the military honors that were part of his funeral service and I believe he would have greatly appreciated them. I know the family did and I know that every other family I’ve stood with as they received their folded flag did as well.
I’ve never officiated at the funeral of an active member of our military. While the grief at such a funeral is certainly at a different level than that at the funeral of a veteran who has lived a long life, I’m certain that the pride of serving our country is palpable at both. And this pride is usually something that the families of veterans want to honor. Fortunately, the Honor Guard that attend the funerals of veterans allows families to do just this.
As we enter Memorial Day weekend, let’s appreciate the importance of remembering and honoring the men and women of our military. On Monday, we formally remember the more than one million American military personnel we have lost during active duty over the course of our nation’s history. While it’s not the purpose of Memorial Day, many choose to honor deceased veterans on Monday as well. Memorial Day shouldn’t simply be about picnics or a day at the beach. Whether we have a direct connection to someone who passed away while serving our country or not, it should be a day to reflect upon the lives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
To help us do just this, I share the following with you:
Major John Alexander Hottell, III graduated from West Point in 1964, tenth in a class of 564. He was a Rhodes scholar in 1965. In Vietnam he earned two Silver Stars as a company commander. He later became aide to the First Cavalry Division commander, Major General George W. Casey. Both were killed in the crash of a helicopter on July 7, 1970 in Tuyen Duc, Vietnam. He was 27 years old at the time of his death, which occurred about one year after he wrote his own obituary and sent it in a sealed envelope to his wife, Linda. It was published in The New York Times and reads as follows:
I am writing my own obituary for several reasons, and I hope none of them are too trite. First, I would like to spare my friends, who may happen to read this, the usual clichés about being a good soldier. They were all kind enough to me, and I not enough to them. Second, I would not want to be a party to perpetuation of an image that is harmful and inaccurate; “glory” is the most meaningless of concepts, and I feel that in some cases it is doubly damaging. And third, I am quite simply the last authority on my own death.
I loved the Army; it reared me, it nurtured me, and it gave me the most satisfying years of my life. Thanks to it I have lived an entire lifetime in 26 years. It is only fitting that I should die in its service. We all have but one death to spend, and insofar as it can have any meaning, it finds it in the service of comrades in arms.
And yet, I deny that I died FOR anything – not my country, not my Army, not my fellow man, none of these things. I LIVED for these things, and the manner in which I chose to do it involved the very real chance that I would die in the execution of my duties. I knew this, and accepted it, but my love for West Point and the Army was great enough – and the promise that I would someday be able to serve all the ideals that meant anything to me through it was great enough – for me to accept this possibility as a part of a price which must be paid for all things of great value. If there is nothing worth dying for – in this sense – there is nothing worth living for.
The Army let me live in Japan, Germany and England with experiences in all of these places that others only dream about. I have skied in the Alps, killed a scorpion in my tent camping in Turkey, climbed Mount Fuji, visited the ruins of Athens, Ephesus and Rome, seen the town of Gordium where another Alexander challenged his destiny, gone to the opera in Munich, plays in the West End of London, seen the Oxford-Cambridge rugby match, gone for pub crawls through the Cotswolds, seen the night-life in Hamburg, danced to the Rolling Stones, and earned a master’s degree in a foreign university.
I have known what it is like to be married to a fine and wonderful woman and to love her beyond bearing with the sure knowledge that she loves me; I have commanded a company and been a father, priest, income-tax adviser, confessor, and judge for 200 men at one time; I have played college football and rugby, won the British national diving championship two years in a row, boxed for Oxford against Cambridge only to be knocked out in the first round, and played handball to distraction – and all of these sports I loved, I learned at West Point. They gave me hours of intense happiness.
I have been an exchange student at the German Military Academy, and gone to the German Jumpmaster school. I have made thirty parachute jumps from everything from a balloon in England to a jet at Fort Bragg. I have written an article that was published in Army magazine, and I have studied philosophy.
I have experienced all these things because I was in the Army and because I was an Army brat. The Army is my life, it is such a part of what I was that what happened is the logical outcome of the life I loved. I never knew what it is to fail. I never knew what it is to be too old or too tired to do anything. I lived a full life in the Army, and it has exacted the price. It is only just.”
May the memory of Major Hottell and all of our fallen military personnel only serve as a blessing.