Jocko Willink: Our flag bears the weight of its fallen defenders

I watched through my peripheral vision.

It is something I learned in the military. I learned to stand at attention, look straight forward, but still see what is going on.

And I could see.

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I could see the honor guard take the flag off of his coffin.

Their sharp uniforms. Their white gloves.

I watched their crisp, well-rehearsed movements as they went through their procedures.

Without shifting my eyes, I focused back on his coffin.

I was still trying to process it all.

So much emotion, so much joy, so much sorrow, so much light and laughter and love.

So much life.

All now boxed up and silent in that wooden casket.

Gone.

The honor guard continued with their predetermined movements.

One fold at a time, precise hands moving like professional craftsmen.

As they carry on, the red and white stripes of the flag are consumed by the blue field with its white stars.

The flag is now neatly folded into a thick triangle.

The leader of the honor guard, a second class petty officer, grasps the flag into his hands.

He executes a sharp facing movement, takes a step, and then executes another facing movement.

He is now looking directly at me. Our eyes are locked, but expressionless.

We both know we have a job to do.

He marches forward.

He halts just in front of me.

I slowly and precisely raise my right hand from my side and render a sharp salute. I pause.

I gradually lower the salute and then put my hands out to receive the flag.

He moves it forward into my hands. I clench it.

The flag is heavy in my hands with pain and grief.

I feel the weight, a weight I can barely support as it tears at my soul.

He takes one step back, and renders a slow, flawless salute.

It is my turn now.

I execute a right face. I take six steps forward. I focus on my breath. I clench my jaw in order to get some control over my emotions before she sees my face.

I execute another right face. I am in front of her now.

I take two steps forward. She whispers a quiet moan of anguish.

It is the loudest noise I have ever heard.

I stop in front of her, still looking straight ahead.

I bend down on one knee.

I look at her.

Her heart is broken.

Tears are trickling down her face.

Yet, she smiles at me, as if to say, It’s OK.

I feel my emotions start to rush to the surface. I want to break down and cry.

But there is procedure to follow. I am a military man. I know to follow procedure.

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

I place the full weight of that flag, with all its agony and torment into her hands.

She looked down at it and pulled it in close to her chest and absorbed it all.

She looked back at me.

I break protocol.

“Your boy was my hero,” I told her. “I loved him and I always will.”

She smiled and nodded. She already knew that.

Her eyes returned to gaze at the heavy flag in her arms.

I leaned in and gently kissed her on the forehead.

The kiss was not only from me. She knew that, too.

I stood back up and assumed the position of attention.

I rendered the proudest salute I could possibly muster.

I took one step back. I performed a right face. And marched off.

I assumed my position back in the ranks.

The guns fired. The bugle played its solemn notes.

My friend was buried in that sacred place.

And above it all, soaring in the sky, was our flag.

Bearing upon it the weight of a million souls who gave their lives for it.

Bearing upon it the anguish of the mothers and fathers who gave their precious children for it.

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And yet it flies. And yet it flies.

Carried aloft, by freedom and by the precious memories of those who gave us that freedom.

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