At the head of the casket, standing my half-hour watch, a Coast Guard officer beside me and two Legion men at the feet, I felt a brief part of it, the family of man and the brotherhood of arms.
And for two hours more, in the sanctuary beside my son, with song and speech and spirit and sermon, we were the tribe of the moment, an ad hoc clan, bound in ritual and ceremony, partakers of some sacred communion, the mourners of Gary Beikirch.
In the front on the left was a man from Iwo Jima, his medal around his neck for 75 years. In the front on the right was the congressman, representing the United States and its people. In the center for several rows were his family, people you could mostly tell by their look, and by their spirit. The grandchildren would stand and tell stories that told of a loving and purposeful patriarch. A daughter and some grandchildren would stand to sing and play and eyes across the sanctuary would tear up.
In the center sat the bride, his battle buddy for almost 50 years, in whose arms he died.
In the congregation were two white-haired men, one tall and one short. The tall one came in on a helicopter on 1 April 1970, to Dak Seang, in heavy fire. More than 20 American aircraft had been shot down in the siege, and every expectation was that this one would be, too. But they sent it in to get this man Beikirch who was shot all to hell and they wanted a man who would bring him out, no matter what. The tall man volunteered. It was the short man who carried him to the helicopter as the RPGs whistled past.
It was a moment, a brief exchange, three Green Berets in the Central Highlands. For 15 years the short man didn’t know whether Beikirch had lived. Then, walking around a corner in New York City, come to watch a parade, there he was. The tall man likewise was ignorant of Beikirch’s fate, until years later reading a magazine article about a Medal of Honor recipient, had the pieces fall in place and yelled out to his wife that this was the guy from the helicopter, the guy he had risked his life to save.
The tall man and the short man had no time for farewells when the Huey dusted off, but their first meeting since, their reunion at the funeral, was warm and instant and strong.
The war hero’s funeral was infused with a recognition of the combat veteran’s burden. Some call it PTSD, some call it guilt – of the killer and of the survivor – but it can rage through the life of a veteran, leaving damage like a tornado. Those who stayed at home only see the damage, those who went to war have faced the storm. For brief moments in the remarks of Nick Stefanovic, you could see distant flashes of the storm’s rage. He was a Marine who came home broken and closed, and he told of Gary Beikirch’s patient but persistent efforts to open him up. In war, Beikirch ran from wounded man to wounded man, bringing aid. It was the same way in peace. And in Stefanovic’s words you saw proof of Beikirch’s gift.
Like in the hall, where Bob Rapone stood, pins and patches on his hat and vest, redness around his eyes.
“I went to Gary,” he said, “and I asked him, ‘How do we justify what we did over there?’
“And he said, ‘We don’t. God does.’”
God heals everything. And saves everyone. Everyone who will.
That was the message of the service, in the megachurch. The county executive spoke, and did well. The Special Forces colonel spoke, and did well. The author and the sister-in-law and the family friend spoke, and did well. And the preacher got up to invite all to do good.
That was part of the deal. Gary Beikirch had planned his funeral for a half a year, as the cancer had its way, and he wanted all who gathered to be called to the altar. So the retired pastor, George Grace, got up and preached. Artfully, cleverly, passionately, and invited all to come to Christ.
And maybe some did.
Beside the grave, in the frigid winter sun, Britt Slabinski stood up, a thin man with the medal around his neck, earned as a SEAL in the cold atop a snowy mountain in Afghanistan. There had been a reception for recipients, he said, an annual affair, formal in white tuxedos, a bunch of heroes lined up. Slabinski stepped out of line to saunter up to Beikirch, an ordained minister, and ask him how long it would take him to get ready to perform a wedding. Two weeks. No. I mean right now. And so it was that a few minutes later, leading his fiancé with a “Come with me,” Slabinski and his betrothed walked into a room where waited Gary Beikirch and a couple of friends.
She beamed as he told the story.
And a few minutes later, after the rifles fired, the burial detail lifted the flag from the casket and smartly folded it. The sergeant of the guard, with a Green Beret and a 70s mustache, looked and tucked and pulled and inspected, and then shook his head “no.” It was not acceptable. Not for this soldier. Not for this flag. Not for the 5thSpecial Forces. So they unfolded it, above Gary Beikirch in repose, and folded it again. And they got it right.
These nine young men, all seemingly in their 20s, all in Green Berets, all bedecked with been theres and done thats. The sort of men Gary Beikirch devoted his life to. The sort of man Gary Beikirch was.
They carried him to his grave. They fired the rifle salute. They folded the flag.
They did the last duty of a comrade.
And family led his sweetheart away, dazed.
Oh, life goes on. And at the reception after, the vitality of the grandchildren, the robust Beikirch buzz, was proof of that. Both God and Darwin say a man is judged by his progeny, and Gary Beikirch was certainly a success there. He blessed the world through the people he counseled, and through the people he raised.
So the children ate and laughed and the church table enjoyed fellowship while the soldier table visited quietly and at the table where the men with white hair talked about 1 April 1970 the wives looked on and heard echoes of the storm.
And the sweetheart stood dazed, family and friends around her.
Awaiting the promised peace.