Salutes honor those serving yesterday, today, tomorrow

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. John Greth
  • 389th Aircraft Maintenance Unit
Feelings of bitterness and loss caused the shoulders to slump, head held down, with no purpose or focus.

Unaware of the surroundings, mixed emotions gripped the thoughts of the present. Time had run out. There was no way to show respect, thanks, gratitude or feelings of respect and pride to the person everyone came to see.

Or was there?

Music broke the silence as a lone bugler played Taps nearby. There was no hesitation. It was time to snap to attention and deliver the finest salute possible. The reaction came naturally: stand proud and strong with respect, head held high, stomach tight, shoulders back and eyes forward and focused straight ahead.

With discipline and focus, the right arm snapped upward, the upper arm staying horizontal to the ground and forearm tilted 45 degrees with the palm and wrist straight with thumb and fingers extended and joined together with the tip of the forefinger at the headgear above and slightly to the right of the right eye.

To a casual observer, the outside appearance remained steadfast, not relinquishing clues of the sadness or trembling that came from within.

Over the years, people debated the origin of the hand salute. Did it start when two cavemen raised their right hands to show they were not carrying weapons? Perhaps it began when two knights passed each other and one raised their visor to reveal their identity to respect their superior. Maybe it began when a subordinate soldier removed their headgear while in the presence of a superior. Regardless of its origin, the salute evolved into a military courtesy performed within the military profession of arms. It renders respect between juniors and superiors and to the president, national anthem and American flag.

None of that really mattered as the music continued to echo across the cemetery and the sign of respect continued.

The salute was for the man lying in the flag-covered coffin. It recognized his many years of service as a Marine and his years of dedication as a loving father - my father.

But the salute was also offered for many hallowed heroes of the past. It recognized the loyalty of American ancestry dating back more than 200 years and the many trials, tribulations, and turmoil endured by those who paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of freedom. It honored the service members already put to rest in the graveyard who gave their lives so liberty and justice could prevail for all.

It also honored many other heroes present at the ceremony. There was my father's long-time family friend and neighbor, who served in World War II at Iwo Jima and had the battle scars and three Purple Hearts to prove it. There was my father-in-law, a Marine helicopter crew chief who earned multiple air medals in Vietnam but was most proud of the Navy commendation medal he earned for rescuing Vietnamese people during the floods of 1964. There was my childhood best friend whose father never returned from Vietnam.

The salute was for them as well.

On that summer day in June 1989, with the salute held firm with eyes focused forward, there was no way to know the United States was on the dawn of another long war and more U.S. service members would come to rest in this field as well.

The salute was also for them.

As the last notes of music faded, my arm returned to my side following a path one inch from the front of the torso and resting at the right hip. The feelings of loss and bitterness were gone. I sat down, head held high, shoulders square.

This seemingly small act was the one final chance I had to show my father the respect, pride and gratitude he earned. I did it with action, not words. Of all the compliments someone could give him, a proper salute was the most meaningful.

The American military hand salute is a military courtesy encompassing the profession of arms. It's important to present it and return it with the true meaning behind it - sharp and precise - with respect to those it honors. Those who served yesterday, those serving today and those who will serve tomorrow have earned it.