Friday, February 9, I arrived at Arlington National Cemetery for what I knew would be an emotional afternoon of paying tribute to a young sergeant and graduate of The Citadel, Sgt. Aaron X. Wittman. Sgt Wittman was killed in action in Afghanistan by small arms fire, January 10, while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. My son is in the same battalion, but a different company. Both Sgt. Wittman and my son are graduates of The Citadel.
The night before my hosts for the evening told me what to expect when I arrived. There would be no way for them to prepare me for what I found on my arrival, three long rows of cars all waiting to pay tribute to Sgt. Wittman. I had a hand quilted Gold Star banner donated by Memories in Stitches to deliver to the wife of the battalion commander who in turn would present the banner to Mrs. Wittman. I knew the turn out would be significant, but I could not have imagined the sea of cars and people in front of me.
A quick call to Mrs. Davenport and the guards allowed me to move closer to the front of the line. I passed the banner to Mrs. Davenport and made sure to take a photo graph for the lady who made the banner. Shortly later we were in our cars and moving slowly through the cemetery for the beginning of the graveside ceremony.
I have been to the cemetery before but each visit I am moved by the experience. As we snaked through the various sections I took time to say prayers of thanks for the life and sacrifice of each person there represented by a white marble head stone.
The line of cars had to stretch about a mile long. A silent procession of cars wound their way into place. We parked on both sides of the street and walked up a small hill to where the horse and carriage, the honor guard, and the military band awaited the arrival of the casket. I was struck by the sheer numbers of cars and people and how quiet it was there. An occasion jet passed over head. You could see other smaller services about to start as we took our place at the top of the hill. I am told about 3 or 4 services are held each day there.
As I approached the crowd gathered at the top of the hill I quickly met two Citadel moms toward the back of the assembled crowd. One mom I have known for a few years.The other I had not met before but we are Facebook friends. We waited for the ceremony to start.
As a soldier killed in action Sgt. Wittman was given full military honors. As a member of the Patriot Guard Riders I have attended a few military funerals at the Georgia National Cemetery, but had to refer to the website for Arlington National Cemetery to learn what it means to have full military funeral honors. The web site for the cemetery says this about the service, “enlisted members who die as a result of wounds received in action and are being interred/inurned at Arlington National Cemetery are eligible to receive full military funeral honors, to include an escort platoon, a colors team, a band, and a caisson section.”
The ceremony began quietly. As we all looked on a team of pall bearers approached the hearse to remove the casket and proceeded to place it on the caisson (horse-drawn carriage). There was a caparisoned (riderless) horse there as well. The ceremony proceeded. The band played a very moving song. I don’t know the name of it, but it was beautiful. We were all touched by the honor and dignity to the entire ceremony.
At the designated time the band proceeded to the front of the caisson and led the procession down the hill to the grave site. There must have been between 100-200 people in attendance. I saw representatives of the media take a respectful place at a distance from the proceedings. The Washington Post published a write-up and photos in the paper the next day. I knew a few friends who wanted to attend and I tried to take a couple of discrete photos to capture the dignity of the service.
We stood in silence as the ceremony began under a small open tent. While we couldn’t really hear what was being said we all knew when it was time to bow our heads in prayer. I don’t remember the order of the service, but when the 21 gun salute and bugler began to play Taps,we all felt the gravity of the loss of this fine young man.
Since 2007 when my son began at The Citadel I have learned quite a bit about the fellowship between the cadets and graduates of the Military College of South Carolina. Some say the fellowship between the graduates who wear the ring is stronger than any bond out there. I have experienced this bond in a variety of settings.
February 9 at Arlington National Cemetery was the most moving display of honor and respect I have ever experienced. I did meet a few of Aaron’s classmates that day, but the majority of graduates assembled did not know him, or his family, but they ARE his Citadel family.
My prayers are with the Wittman family.
Rest In Peace Sgt. Aaron X. Wittman.
God our Father,
Your power brings us to birth,
Your providence guides our lives,
and by Your command we return to dust.
Lord, those who die still live in Your presence,
their lives change but do not end.
I pray in hope for my family,
relatives and friends,
and for all the dead known to You alone.
In company with Christ,
Who died and now lives,
may they rejoice in Your kingdom,
where all our tears are wiped away.
Unite us together again in one family,
to sing Your praise forever and ever.
NOTE: A tree will be planted in memory of Sgt. Wittman along the Warrior’s Walk at Fort Stewart, February 21. Time TBA.
Please support the SGT Aaron X. Wittman, USA ’07, Memorial Scholarship
On Facebook: Aaron Wittman Foundation