Memorial Day is the last Monday in May, but it is often the last Sunday of May when military servicemen and women who are no longer with us are remembered and honored for serving their country and, in some cases, gave the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield, in the waterways or in the sky.
At the Arbovale United Methodist Church Sunday, Memorial Day service guest speaker Dr. Barry Ball shared an intimate look into how some servicemen and women honor the memories of the fallen every day with their daily duties.
Ball was an Air Force Reserve Chaplain stationed in Dover, Delaware. When he was called to duty, he was stationed at the Port Mortuary. His job was to look after staff who worked at the mortuary.
“I would tell my wife that, when you walked into the Port Mortuary, it’s ministry on steroids,” he said. “There’s not a moment, there’s not a breath, there’s not a pause that you’re not in ministry.”
Ball said he wanted to share what happens every day at the Port Mortuary and what the young men and women who are stationed there do when handling the bodies of those lost in battle.
From the moment a plane arrives with a body or bodies, every movement, every moment is direct and respectful. Ball, and a representative from the branch of the military that the deceased served under, would meet the transfer case as it was draped with an American flag and taken from the plane.
“I, Barry Ball, would get to say a prayer over this child of someone,” he said. “This husband or this wife of someone. And these broken airmen who just rode eight hours with this body or bodies, I would get to say a prayer.”
As the transfer case was taken to the mortuary, all other action on the airstrip halted. No maintenance or loading of cargo planes took place during this time.
Next, the deceased was removed from the body bag, x-rayed, fingerprinted, had a dental examination and DNA is collected.
Then an autopsy is performed, to give the family closure on the cause of death and for future studies to learn more about how the equipment used by the individual may have failed to protect him or her.
Once the deceased is identified, they are taken to a uniform room where they are outfitted with the proper uniform and medals from their service.
“In the Port Mortuary is a big room with every medal, ribbon, name tag, unit award that can exist,” Ball said. “We know for sure that this person is who we think it is and they came from this unit – a uniform that fits them perfectly is created – hemmed, pressed, perfect.”
If the body is intact, it is dressed in the uniform and the family has an option of a viewing. In cases when the deceased is unable to be viewed or is not intact, it is wrapped respectfully and is draped with a uniform before the casket is closed to never be opened again.
After sharing the process, Ball recalled a particular day at the Port Mortuary that stood out to him.
It had been a long, dreary week. By Friday afternoon, when the sun finally came out to brighten the day, the mortuary was finishing up with its last soldier.
A team of three airmen were struggling to get a belt buckle to fasten just right on the soldier and Ball noticed that on the other side of the room, a young female airman was busying herself, but seemed to be stressed.
“I said to myself, ‘there’s an airman that I probably need to talk to,” he said. “Something is bothering her that she’s not over here working. Those men finished and then a representative of the Army would come and make sure the uniform was perfect before the casket was closed.”
The three airmen’s work was complete and they left for the weekend. As Ball was about to go over to the female airman to ask her what was wrong, he watched as she approached the casket.
“I was standing there judging this young woman, thinking there was something bothering her,” he said. “She walked over to the body, picked up the uniform, put it on the table and started all over again because she wanted it perfect, although it would never be seen again.
“And she worked, and she worked, and she worked.”
Ball was moved by the care and precision she put into the uniform, knowing that no one outside of the mortuary would see what she did. She did it because it was her way of honoring the sacrifice and memory of the individual in the casket.
With that in mind, Ball said there is a way every day that we all can honor the memory of those who have passed.
“How do we live?” he asked. “How do we say thank you when we are not assigned to the mortuary? I think we live in ways of acts of mercy and love, forgiveness and grace, maybe never to be seen. But we do it out of thanksgiving, and because we want others to experience it.
“This young airman was doing nothing but taking care of the family that was possibly thousands of miles away and she’ll never meet them, and they’ll never see the work she did,” he continued. “That’s how we begin to say thank you. On Wednesdays. On Thursdays. On Fridays. In the quiet. In the unseen. To say thank you to those who have given everything they’ve had and the families that have lost so, so very much.”
After Ball’s speech, Suzanne Stewart read the names of those interred at the Arbovale Cemetery since the last Memorial Day service. Family members and friends helped place flowers in two baskets which were later placed at the flagpole at the cemetery.
The congregation then retired to the cemetery where the Pocahontas County Veterans Honor Corps performed military rites.
Commander Rick Wooddell addressed those gathered.
“Opportunity. Legacy. Duty. Purpose. Patriotism,” he said. “The reasons behind choosing military service differ from person to person. But as varied as the reasons are, there’s a universal understanding: Service means sacrifice. Even if that sacrifice is one’s own life.
“The impact of this ultimate sacrifice ripples through our communities,” he continued. “Service members’ deaths touch more than just the lives of their loved ones and friends. When their stories are shared in our neighborhoods, our homes, our schools and our places of worship, these men and women become a part of the collective identity of our hometowns.”
The speech, provided by the Disabled American Veterans, recognized just how deep into a community the loss of service members cuts. Keeping those stories alive is how communities are able to honor those service men and women.
“The stories of their sacrifices live on in the pride of memories of their loved ones and at observances and through inscriptions on memorials and plaques dedicated to the legacy of their generation,” Wooddell said. “Woven into the fabric of our country are those who died while wearing the cloth of our nation. They instill a sense of pride among citizens. They inspire new generations to raise their hands in service.
“We must continue to share their stories, to remember what they sacrificed for the rest of us,” he continued. “Because few men and women choose to put their lives on the line to serve and defend the Constitution. Few go toward danger. Few willingly face atrocities most of us can’t fathom. Few citizens volunteer to serve, knowing that death may be the outcome. But we can ensure that those who make this choice and make the ultimate sacrifice can rest knowing they served with the thanks of this grateful nation.”
Wooddell added that he wanted to make a special tribute to Pocahontas County’s own Dabney Kis-ner, who passed away at the age of 100 in December 2020.
“We would like to honor World War II USAAC veteran Lt. Dabney Kisner, who is best remembered for having to bail out of two damaged aircraft and was protected by Belgium citizens until he could be repatriated,” Wooddell said. “Let us honor all our heroes who are no longer with us. Let us strive to live up to these examples of selfless patriotism.”
The ceremony was concluded with a 21-gun salute and Taps.