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October 20, 2014

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Where I Stand:

Respect is more than a budget item

What fools we are that we would leave a soldier behind.

There are many ways to be undeserving of the men and women who have worn the uniform of the United States, those who have given their best and, in too many cases, given their all so that we could enjoy living in these United States of America.

This past week we left another of our brave heroes behind. No, it wasn’t on the battlefield where courage is defined and bravery is exemplified. It was on a different field. It was one of those grassy and peaceful expanses where we lay our heroes to rest.

We can’t always save them during the heat of battle — not because we didn’t try but because the fighting was just too hot to risk any more soldiers in a futile effort to save the fallen or captured.

While it is hard to justify those decisions not to go back, they are, at least, understandable.

But what about leaving our soldiers behind during peacetime, when there are no great obstacles to doing what is right? How do we condone not living up to the implicit promise we make to those who go into battle to protect this great country? And, especially, how do we not live up to those commitments when our only excuse is money?

A retired Air Force major was buried last week. His name, while always important, is not essential for the purpose of this column. His story is, though, because there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men and women who will likely face the same dishonorable actions as their mortality takes its toll.

Providing military funeral honors to those who have worn this country’s uniform is a tradition that is mandated by law in the United States.

To a family requesting such a funeral, a minimum of two representatives of the Armed Services, one from the branch in which the deceased served, will be present. It is this country’s final opportunity to give its thanks for faithful and honorable service.

That is the commitment our major got when he entered the military at age 18 to fight in World War II. That is the commitment our country has made to all of our soldiers. There is no doubt that our major, who retired from active duty after 20 years and multiple tours of duty during two wars, qualified.

And he, more than most, knew what military funeral honors were all about.

He was the commander of the Honor Guard for President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It could have been his proudest moment, albeit the saddest, wearing the dress uniform of his service organization.

Yes, he got the best the Air Force could afford at his own funeral. But it was far less than the Air Force had always done.

It wasn’t a matter of where the Honor Guard was, but where it wasn’t that makes this story important because it shows how callous we can be when it comes to money.

Prior to this year, the Armed Services spared very little expense in showing the proper respect for those who served in uniform. The Honor Guard would act as pallbearers if requested, play taps, if a bugler was available, fire salutes and do all manner of kindness to honor fallen soldiers.

And then came sequestration.

So, where is one of the first places the military cuts? You guessed it. The Honor Guard.

I believe that should have been one of the last places where the ax fell. For starters, those who wanted a military funeral and their nation’s gratitude are no longer able to complain when the need arises. Instead, it is left to the families to try to understand why Mom or Dad was shortchanged, at a time when they are most vulnerable.

There is also the obscenity of it all, given that the Honor Guard program could be managed for millions of dollars while the Pentagon spends billions and billions of dollars on war machinery and weapons and other materiel that is either obsolete or, at the least, has no foreseeable purpose other than to be mothballed at some out-of-the-way military site that no one will ever see or know about.

My beef is not that we have to save money in this country, because we do. It’s not that we shouldn’t cut the military budget, because we can and must. No, my concern is that this cut has diminished us the most; it tells those who honor us with their service that, when it comes to a few dollars here and there, we don’t need to honor them back.

I know it isn’t even a close call when comparing a funeral with the resolve to never leave a soldier behind, but to me it is all part of the same commitment to those whose lives have been pledged in service to our country.

Sequestration was a political ploy that didn’t work. Allowing it to happen was an act of political cowardice. Exactly the opposite of what we expect from our military personnel.

But, it can be easily resolved — except for the major and his family for whom the letdown will remain forever. Save a few billion dollars by no longer making tanks that nobody needs and put a few million dollars back into buglers and dress uniforms so we can say farewell to our heroes in the manner they deserve.

It is possible to save money and save our dignity at the same time. We should do both. It is, after all, the honorable thing to do.

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