Alexandria, VA – My father, Jack Mulligan, was 21 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States into World War II. He tried three times to enlist but was denied due to poor eyesight. He got in eventually. “My eyesight didn’t get any better,” he’d say, “they lowered their standards as the war got worse.”
Dad entered active duty in the U.S. Army on July 1, 1942, at Fort Jay on Governors Island in New York City. He served a year and a half domestically and nearly two years in Africa and Italy with the 88th Infantry Division. Dad handled administrative duties for the commanding office and division headquarters. He was honorably discharged on November 9, 1945. Dad earned the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in a combat zone, as well as a medal for good conduct.
My father didn’t talk much about his experiences, but there were a few stories. Like the time he left his tent to go to the mess hall and came back to a crater in the ground. Or when he was in a Jeep that crashed into a deep rut. Dad flew over the two officers in the front seat, and when he made his way back, they were chuckling because he’d said “excuse me” as he tumbled over them into the rut. Dad often said he didn’t like to talk about the war because he was afraid “they’d send me back.”
Dad met Betty Termini at Breezy Point in Queens, New York. They married in 1950 and lived a wonderful life with six children, 15 grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren. They died in 2009 and 2016, respectively, and donated their bodies to a teaching hospital. When we received their cremains, my siblings and I (I am the youngest) decided to have them inurned at Arlington National Cemetery.
On a sunny, cold Friday in early March 2021, we arrived at those hallowed cemetery grounds with parents in tow, so to speak. We didn’t know what to expect, and to say we were impressed and humbled by the service would be an understatement.
The Honor Guard, a unit of six soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (Old Guard) in formation and moving as one, met us at our car and respectfully picked up our parents’ urns and the U.S. flag we’d brought with us. Seven soldiers stood at attention in the distance.
The Honor Guard marched in a solemn, singular motion. We followed them to a covered pavilion with an altar. One lone soldier stood close by. In the pavilion, the soldiers placed the urns on the altar at the command of the First Sergeant in charge.
With great pomp and care, the Honor Guard unfolded our national flag. Each folded corner was opened and smoothed until the flag was spread wide and held taut over the altar and our parents’ urns, as has been done in military burial ceremonies for centuries. This was no easy task, as the piercing bitter wind buffeted and blew, but they remained steadfast.
In a deep, resonant voice, Chaplain (Major) Leo Moras offered prayers and spiritual guidance. “It is an honor and privilege to be with you today. We lay to rest our beloved brother and comrade in arms, Master Sergeant John Mulligan, and our sister, Elizabeth Mulligan.”
Arlington National Cemetery has been sacred ground for our honored military dead for more than 150 years. Some 400,000 people are buried there. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment is the oldest active duty Army infantry unit. The Honor Guard trains specifically for revered traditions in meaningful ceremonies such as funerals.
Arlington’s iconic gravestones, placed in dizzying geometric perfection, signify “bricks in the foundation of freedom on which we stand today. I encourage you to remember this,” said Father Moras. He said the gravesites at Arlington “are earned, never purchased, and we honor them with dignity and reverence.
“John answered our nation’s call to serve, and he served with honor and distinction in the turbulent years of the Second World War. He received numerous awards and decorations, most notably the Bronze Star Medal. In life, he honored the flag. Now, this flag will honor him.”
On command, the seven soldiers standing at a distance raised their rifles and fired a 21-gun salute, the universal military honor observed in all branches of the service in the United States and in many other countries as well. The Honor Guard continued to hold the flag taut, battling the wind as the strains of Taps came from the lone soldier we’d passed, a bugler.
My parents were blessed with long, full lives, and we were fortunate to have them honored in this ceremony. I can’t imagine the anguish of hearing this sorrowful music for a young fallen soldier and family member.
After the First Sergeant saluted my parents beneath the flag, the soldiers commenced refolding, looking straight ahead as they performed the task. Their every movement was deftly choreographed to produce crisp corners, to smooth the fabric again and again, until they tucked the remaining flap tightly, flatly, securely.
In clipped, measured movements, the soldiers passed the folded flag to the First Sergeant, who walked to us, knelt on one knee, placed the flag on a small table, and rested his hand on top of it. He lowered his mask, looked directly at my sister, and said, “Ma’am, on behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honor and faithful service.” Then he stood, paced back to the altar, and offered a final salute to our parents.
Following a long moment, we proceeded to the columbarium, where tens of thousands of niches hold soldiers and their spouses’ remains. When my parents’ urns were placed in their niche, Father Moras offered a final prayer of eternal rest and perpetual light.
Even though Dad died 12 years ago, and mother five years ago, we were newly sad and reluctant to say goodbye yet again. We reminisced, telling old stories, and agreed that Mom and Dad would have appreciated this proper funeral. The military does indeed take care of its own. We are thankful that our parents are in so worthy a resting place and proud of the respect and dignity shown to them.
Finally, although Dad served in the Army during World War II, his service ended when the war was over. We weren’t a military family; I didn’t know military families while growing up. It was when my husband and I moved to Alexandria that I met many families where one or both parents were on active duty while also raising children. Their quiet, steely dedication and service to their community and country have always impressed me. For a brief time, I felt a part of that tight-knit community.