It is astounding to me how one person can affect so many…like ripples in a pond. The rings of a life travel far and touch many. Jason Harkins life was like that, affecting many people that he did not even know. I am one of those people. Hundreds of others lined the streets of our town Friday. They closed their businesses, left their jobs and stood for hours in the hot sun to pay tribute to a man they never knew. It was quite a sight to see.
On the way to the funeral, over the road there was a humungous flag draped between two bucket trucks. My heart began grieving for the family at that moment. It was the beginning of many breathless moments that day. Our church family lined the streets around the church for the processional. We held flags to show our support and thanks to this family for the ultimate sacrifice they have made. Dignitaries arrived by a helicopter that landed on the baseball field across from the church. Soon after, we could hear sirens at a distance. First, the police cars came with lights flashing, then the van with the honor guard, then about 50 Patriot Riders on motorcycles rode with flags; their duty…to protect this day. Then the hearse came with the flag draped coffin in the back. Next in line was the rider-less horse, with Jason’s empty combat boots in the stirrups. It was a solemn moment…breathless. All eyes were moist and then the tears really began to flow as the black limousine with the family went past. Helicopters flew overhead, and I wondered what it must be like for a family to grieve in such a fishbowl. The world is watching you bury your son, your husband, your brother; it cannot get tougher than that.
The funeral was both heart wrenching and patriotic. The formality of the military honors mixed with the compassion of the people to create a sweet atmosphere of love and care. The color guard brought the flag and placed it beside the flag draped coffin. The pledge was said and the National Anthem sung. There were PowerPoint presentations set to patriotic songs that captured the meaning of Jason’s life. And then the slides of his childhood through adulthood caused all mothers to hold their own children a little tighter and pray for Nancy with great sorrow. Wives held husband’s hands in a firm grip and mourned with Emily
Each minister that shared brought another piece of Jason’s life into the spotlight of his death. The youth pastor that led him to the Lord spoke first about Jason’s desire to know God even as a young eighth grader. Then the minister that married Jason and Emily told of their love for each other and their desire to have a Christian marriage. A song that his Emily wrote called You Get Used to Goodbye (The Military Wife) followed this. She wrote it as he left for Iraq never knowing the double-edged meaning of the words would pierce every heart at his funeral. Compassion and tears flowed from the people as her words, sung by a cousin, hit home.
Last, the pastor of Concord shared about Jason’s service to the Lord and to his country. He told about just a few weeks ago when Jason had returned into a hostile firefight to save an injured buddy’s life as he carried him to safety. He took a bullet in his helmet that day, and it earned him a bronze star. He saved the helmet with the bullet still lodged in it as a trophy of that victory. Two weeks later, he died in a roadside bomb. It does not make sense, but we know that God is holding Jason and his family now, his compassion overflowing for his children. In private before the ceremony, a Brigadier General presented the family with a purple heart, a bronze star, and other commendations. The general was recognized at the end of the funeral. The color guard removed the colors and the body was removed behind them.
The ride to the cemetery was the most amazing part to me. I was ahead of the procession trying to find a place to stand among the crowd. As I rode, I saw diversity standing by the roadside. Old men in overalls, little children in strollers, men in suits, all varieties of people lined up to pay tribute…for miles. These are the people for whom Jason was fighting; this is a picture of the USA in all of its diversity coming together in unity for one moment in time. These people were putting aside their differences and their lives for an hour or two to show their respect to this soldier and his family.
On the street, we were realizing that our freedom is not free. We saw the cost as it drove by us in a black hearse. We saw it in the faces of a family in painful agony as they moved to bury their loved one. It was hushed in the crowd as the cars filed by. Each one was holding his/her flag up in silence. Quiet sobs and curious children; tear filled eyes, and veteran salutes were the sights and sounds of respect…breathless.
Once I was back in my car, I proceeded to the cemetery. The day was beautiful; it was sunny with a cool breeze and bright blue skies. They presented and read a long list of honors earned by this young man. The honor guard fired the salute that made startled children in the crowd cry out and hold their ears. In our hearts, we were crying with the children…Stop, this is not right. It is loud. It is wrong. Stop. But they did not stop and we did not cry out…breathless.
The honor guard removed the flag from the casket just as the wind picked up. They folded it ever so slowly and carefully. It passed with slow salute from one officer to another, until it finally came to rest in the arms of his wife; then another for his mother and one more for his father. The presenter spoke words of comfort and gratefulness, as the family clung to the red, white, and blue fabric for which Jason died. The pastor gave a message of hope to the family and The Lords Prayer was sung. In a final moment, the young widow stood, kissed the casket and said her goodbyes as she clung to the only thing she has left…the flag…Jason’s flag. Breathless.
The day was full of ceremony but in the end, Jason is still gone. A family is still hurting. Our community is in mourning for one of our own. Our hearts are ripped out. The ripples in the pond are expanding, moving outward. I did not know Jason personally, but I know his family. They are remarkable people to handle this event with such dignity and to allow us to watch their very private, personal loss in such a public way. They are people of faith. Their desire is that Jason’s sacrifice will lead others to know their Savior, Jesus Christ. After all, He is one that Jason modeled his life after. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13