Members of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard finish folding the American flag that was draped over U.S. Air Force Capt. David A. Wisniewski's casket during his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Aug. 23, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Gina Chiaverotti-Paige/Released)

When Veterans Die – Do the Words Still Have the Same Meaning?

Over the past month, there has been much conversation about veterans: the observance of our annual Veterans Day, the lack of visits by our sitting president to current military overseas or to Arlington Cemetery on Veterans Day, and the death of a United States President who himself was a veteran.

I have a different perspective this year on veterans.

I feel quite honored and privileged that I am often able to help families say goodbye to their loved ones by presiding at their funerals. For many years, I was quite moved when we would bury a veteran of the United States Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard. The families would typically share their loved one’s connection to the military, and the emotion of the military part of the ceremony added to the emotion of the day.

There are always two or three military men or women present at these funerals with military honors. The individuals present are in uniform, play Taps, and then proceed to present the American flag to the next of kin. One of the military representatives will say to the family members,

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States military and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

I have been a rabbi for over 20 years. For 18 of those years, regardless of who was sitting in the office of the President, regardless of whether or not I had voted for them, I never blinked when these words were spoken. The office of the President was the highest office in the land, and our veterans deserved the gratitude of the President of the United States, the entire military body and our full nation. However, over the past two years, each time those words have been uttered, I now cringe. Not because of my own personal feelings toward the President, but because I had recently learned the story, the character of the individual who had died, the veteran who was being honored. Often, I learned about their very strong political views.  Even more often, though they would appreciate the very special and moving military honors being presented to them in those sacred moments of honor and remembrance, I know that the words shared would not have settled well with them.

Does the language need to change, to say: ‘On behalf of the Office of the President of the United States,’ or simply leave that part out, and say ‘On behalf of the United States military and a grateful nation….’ Will families begin to opt out from having military honors at the funerals of loved ones, because they don’t want condolences from a particular President?

Honestly, I hope not. I hope that we will never again have a President who does not earn the respect of the vast majority of our country. Veterans deserve our utmost honor, especially in their final moments on this earth, and I hope, very soon, our military will be able to share the words: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States military and a grateful nation…” with true honor and utmost respect.

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