Lost and, Sometimes, Never Found
Pentagon Families Bury Their Dead Together and Mourn Five Not Identified
By Steve Vogel
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Friday, September 13, 2002
In the white marble amphitheater where Americans have laid to rest the unknown from wars past, the 184 victims of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon one year ago were remembered at an emotional and unique group burial yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery.
More than a thousand family members attended the funeral with full military honors for victims at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
The mourners sat on long, curved marble benches under a brilliant blue sky in the 82-year-old open-air amphitheater. They all faced a single casket. Inside the coffin, draped with an American flag, were the commingled remains of 25 victims.
“This amphitheater echoes with the collective mourning of a grieving nation,” said Army Brig. Gen. James T. Spivey, who spent months with the families while they waited for victims to be identified, and who returned yesterday to deliver the funeral address.
While all 125 people killed at the Pentagon and the 59 passengers and crew members aboard American Airlines Flight 77 were honored in the service, yesterday's ceremony was conducted with particular consideration for five victims for whom no remains were found, who range from a retired Army colonel to a 3-year-old girl who was aboard Flight 77.
“Oh, how we prayed with you last year for them to be identified,” Spivey told mourners. “Today, we grieve with you even more, because this never happened.”
“This day, these five join the unknown of past wars, even as we pursue the war that is still unfolding,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in his remarks.
Nine members from the family of Rhonda Rasmussen, an Army budget analyst who was killed in the attack, attended the funeral, and for them, the service helped ease the pain of never recovering her remains.
“We felt that Rhonda's spirit was there, and that things are going to be better now,” her husband, Floyd Rasmussen, 60, said after the service.
Family members were also present representing the four other victims of whom no trace was found: retired Army Colonel Ronald Golinski of Columbia, a civilian Pentagon worker; Ronald John Hemenway, a Navy electronics technician and native of Kansas City, Kansas; James T. Lynch of Manassas, a civilian electronics technician in the Navy's command center; and 3-year-old Dana Falkenberg, a passenger on Flight 77.
Dana died with her sister Zoe, 8, and parents Leslie Whittington and Charles Falkenberg of University Park as they began a trip to Australia. Whittington was an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University and was to serve as a visiting fellow at Australian National University at Canberra.
“Even the innocence of a 3-year-old child was not safe that day,” Spivey said.
Yesterday's ceremony was the first time the Tomb of the Unknowns has been the site of a funeral since an unknown service member from the Vietnam War was buried there in 1984. Those remains were exhumed in 1998 for DNA tests, which showed that they were of Air Force Captain Michael Blassie.
The group burial reflects the gruesome reality of the attack on the Pentagon, where the velocity of the hijacked plane striking the building and the inferno that followed reduced many of the victims to almost nothing.
Five sets of remains recovered from the site did not match the DNA of any of the victims and have been identified by a process of elimination as belonging to the five hijackers, according to Chris Kelly, a spokesman for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Those remains are in the custody of the FBI.
Some remains were so badly burned that no identification could be made. Because it would be impossible to know that those remains do not include portions of the terrorists, they were not included in the casket, Kelly said. The remains are instead being disposed of “in a dignified manner,” he said.
With the group funeral coming one day after the September 11 observance at the Pentagon, members of some families chose not to attend yesterday. The children of Ada Mason, an Army budget official, were among them.
“It was too much for them,” said Bruce Johnson, Mason's brother-in-law, who came with several relatives to represent the family. “Yesterday took a lot out of them.”
It was in many ways a sadder, more personal service than the Pentagon ceremony. As they rose in the amphitheater to sing “Amazing Grace,” mourners wiped tears from their eyes.
The precision of the military honors that followed lent unforgettable dignity and solemnity to the day. An eight-man casket team — two soldiers, two sailors, two Marines and two airmen — carried the coffin from the amphitheater to the waiting caisson.
The horses followed behind an enormous procession: an Army-Air Force honor guard platoon, a joint services color guard and a Navy-Marine honor guard platoon, all with the Army Band marching at the fore.
The procession ended at Section 64, where 57 of the 64 Pentagon victims buried at Arlington are interred, within view of the wall where the plane hit the building. Waiting at graveside was a pentagon-shaped wreath made from 184 flowers. Nearby was a five-sided gray granite memorial marker, with bronze tablets bearing the names of all the victims.
Lieutenant Colonel James May, an Army chaplain, committed the remains. “Be assured they are known by God and forever in His hands,” he told the families.
A rifle party fired three rounds in salute, and a Navy bugler played taps. The casket team folded the flag as the Army Band played “America the Beautiful.” General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, standing by the families, accepted the flag on behalf of the Pentagon.
The family members filed by the casket. Some stopped to touch it, and one woman left a single yellow rose atop the bare wood.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard