In Arlington

Awards during military service are designed to recognize outstanding and extraordinary duty by servicemen/women.  Specifically, the Bronze Star is awarded for “heroic or meritorious achievement”, and the Silver Star is awarded “for conspicuous gallantry in action”.  Originally only awarded to Army members during WW II, the Silver Star was later expanded to be received by members of the Navy, more notably to honor those who bravely served during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Yesterday’s decedent report revealed the following:  “War period: World War II;  Awards:  Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star;  Qualifiers:  Decorated Veteran, Discharged;  Remarks:  DOUBLE SERVICE TO BE PLACED WITH SPOUSE”.  Reports including this information are produced by the dozens every week at Arlington National Cemetery, the information necessary in order to determine individual qualifications for burial in the country’s most hallowed of grounds.

I have stood countless times among the perfectly aligned headstones in Arlington throughout my career.  I’ve read hundreds of names as I’ve marched past numerous graves.  Names without faces.  Letters on polished white rock announcing the final resting place of an individual who served their country in some capacity.  Some are fortunate to be interred along with their spouse whose name appears on the opposite side of the stone.  Sometimes the spouse resides alongside in a separate grave.  And some, sadly, are laid to rest with their children.

Yesterday’s recipient of military honors and burial at Arlington National Cemetery was SSG Nicholas L. Palermo, a Staff Sergeant in the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division during WW II.  He was interred along with his wife Dorothy.  As I stood among the headstones near the firing party, I came to attention as I saw not one, but two hearses approaching Section 44.  I received one of those touching jabs deep in my gut I’ve felt often when in the cemetery as I observed the hearses arriving side by side, a symbol of a lifelong companionship between a man and woman, a husband and wife now completing the journey of their lives – still together.

I volunteered for yesterday’s military honors as SSG Palermo was the father of a person who is very dear to me, Mr. Ed Palermo.  Ed is a fellow musician I met back in 1993 when I first moved to NYC.  I played in his band until I joined the Army.  I enjoyed a myriad of musical moments with him and others he’d assembled.   He’s a man that can both tell and take a joke, and thrives upon laughter when he’s with his peeps.  One of the most talented musical minds I’ve ever known, I think he really can hear the grass grow!   More importantly, Ed’s a man who absolutely adores his family.  When I learned of the passing of Ed’s father, I didn’t know what else I could do to offer my condolences but to honor Ed and his family by playing “Taps”, something that is possible with my active duty status.

The burial rites were carried out traditionally as I’ve seen hundreds of times in Arlington, myself participating.  Following the presentation of the flag by the Chaplain, and the location card by the Arlington Lady, I quietly retreated to my car, leaving the family to be together one final time.  Still moved, I chose not to change out of my uniform, but headed home, rather, finding myself reflective upon past funerals, memories churned by this latest ceremony.  I’ve participated in some of the most troublesome interments imaginable as an Army musician, some with colleagues, and some alone.  Parents agonizing over the loss of their son struck down in a war thousands of miles from home; thousands of miles from the safety of their bedroom in a house where the porch light remains on 24/7 because no one ever thinks to switch it off.  Widows who look like they should be going to their college graduation party, not their husband’s funeral, far too young for this kind of loss.  Young children looking at the faces crying all around them, the tears shed for their fathers who would never bounce them on their knees again.  The funerals of active duty soldiers dying prematurely.  A single casket containing the remains of 8 soldiers, all that is salvageable after a horrid helicopter crash in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.  I recall playing “Taps” for a double funeral, only to watch the Chaplain present the flag to the next of kin, a 4-year-old boy in a baby blue suit, the words “Oh, no!” unconsciously crossing my lips in a whisper.  I watched an autistic teenager refuse to receive his father’s posthumous awards, rocking back and forth in his chair and rejecting the Officer trying to present them to him.  I remember trying to steady my shaky salute, feeling tears roll down my cheek as I witnessed a mother fall to the ground as she followed her child’s casket from the caisson to the gravesite.  I observed a woman and her three children bravely holding hands as they maneuvered through a thunderstorm to the Section 60 grave of their loved one, then spreading a blanket and opening the picnic basket they’d hauled with them, and dining with their family member as the relentless storm continued to pound them.  I’ve watched my colleagues be interred as well as some of their children.  Yet some of the worst funerals I’ve played were the ones in which no family came at all to pay their respects:  simply an Army Chaplain, body bearers, firing party and myself playing “Taps”.  Heartbreaking…

This is the part of being a military musician that is so difficult, yet so honorable.  Although at times tough to stand and witness, I can think of no greater way to honor these dead than to play “Taps” , a final salute to their contributions in the world.  It is a simple tune that is recognized all over the world, yet haunts as it rings off the trees and tombstones.

“Taps”.  Retreat.  The days are done – Time to rest – finally – Sleep.  Quiet.  Love.  Peace.  Now.  Thank you, SSG Palermo, for your service, and for the lovely family you contributed to our world.

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2 Responses to In Arlington

  1. Teri Thetford Sprouse says:

    Thank You for sharing. And just for the record, I still hear the Tennesse Waltz bouncing through the mountains as only played by you. Your musical talent could bring chills every time. Thank you for your service and dedication to our country.


  2. John Palermo says:

    Thank you Liesl. Beautifully written with a perspective I did not previously have. My family deeply appreciates your being part of Wednesday’s ceremony at ANC. We were fortunate to have wonderful parents and their final resting place is one of true honor.


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