Simple, Solitary Prayers For Fallen U.S. Troops – Chaplain Blesses Coffins as They Arrive

By Christian Davenport
Courtsy of the Washington Post
Sunday, July 4, 2004
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Delaware — Air Force Chaplain Robert Cannon plans to begin the July 4 holiday the way he starts most mornings: showing up for work around 7:30 a.m., about a half-hour before anyone else arrives, when the mortuary is quiet and still and he can use the time to write the words he'll speak to God.

On most days, the prayers he pens are for the country's fallen warriors who arrive here from the front lines in flag-draped coffins. If he's lucky, Cannon will have a few hours' notice before the dead arrive. And sometimes there will even be a few details available beyond name, rank and religious background that will help shape his compositions.

But most often he knows little of the dead for whom he says words of blessing, other than that their bodies have traveled a long way, from Iraq or Afghanistan, crossing Europe and the Atlantic to this base where since 1955 the remains of more than 50,000 of the country's war dead have been processed, identified and prepared for burial. And so Cannon says a short, simple prayer, hoping he's chosen words they'd like, words that honor them.

Since the war in Iraq began last year, there has been a constant stream of military cargo planes carrying home the dead. More than 850 U.S. fighters have been killed in the conflict, and Cannon has been there to meet many of them, day and night. But whether it's 3 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon, the military's solemn and choreographed ritual of welcoming the dead home is the same.

Cannon, one of two chaplains assigned to the mortuary, boards the plane with a small party that usually consists of high-ranking officers from different branches of the service. As part of the time-honored ritual, he says his encomium over a cluster of coffins. The honor guard — similar to the kind used in former president Ronald Reagan's recent funeral — then takes the remains into the mortuary. Troops salute. Flags flap in the wind, and the only other sounds are footsteps on the tarmac. Even the honor guard's orders are issued in a hushed tone.

“The silence itself is profound,” Cannon said.

Since May, when the Department of Defense changed its policy that barred families from viewing the event, only one family has chosen to come to witness the coffin being brought off the plane and put into a hearse. Gregg White, whose 19-year-old son, Marine Lance Corporal Russell P. White, was killed in Afghanistan, said in an interview that the family “wanted to welcome our son back to American soil.” The transfer took no longer than 10 minutes, but the family, from Delaware, was glad it went, he said.

“I just felt total peace and silence,” he said. “It was powerful, and it was comforting.”

The media have not been allowed to cover the arrivals of coffins here for 13 years, which has stirred controversy since war began. But to Cannon it matters little whether the rite is public.

“Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking,” he said. “It's not political. It's what we do for someone who has given their life.”

The moment, he said, is for him and the dead and God. Although it may be a solemn, even beautiful, occasion, it is no spectacle, he said. It is the military's way of welcoming fallen warriors home from the battlefield and honoring them, as well. No matter how many prayers Cannon writes, he continues to be awed and humbled by the sacrifice.

“Lord God, we stand humbly before these valiant Marines,” he said in a recent service aboard the plane. “It is our deep and sacred honor to welcome them home once again. . . . Bless their fellow Marines with whom they served. Protect and guard them. May the bravery of these Marines strengthen our resolve in the difficult work of laying the foundation for peace in our time.”

Cannon, who is Catholic, says the prayers for those he knows are Christian. If the dead are Jewish or Muslim, officials at the base call in a rabbi or imam.

Inside the mortuary, Cannon stands off to the side while the remains are prepared. He reads the psalms softly, not much more than a whisper. His presence, he hopes, is “a visible reminder of the holy,” when all around are the grisly results of war.

Sometimes the dead can be identified only by DNA, dental records or fingerprints. And so he keeps an eye on the workers who occasionally falter when the remains are removed from the body bags and move through the mortuary, where they are checked for unexploded ordnance, embalmed and touched up for funeral. If the experience is too much for the mortuary workers, Cannon provides counsel.

Even he was overwhelmed the first time he walked in and was “confronted with all the sights and sounds and smells and the brutality of war. I mean, as a priest I had been in emergency rooms. . . . But this was shocking. There is no other word to describe it.”

Cannon, known by most here as “Father Bob,” is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve who was called to active duty in February 2003. It was shortly before the Iraq war started, and military officials called for additional chaplains. With the permission of his bishop, he left his parish in Venice, Florida.

At 52, he has short, graying hair and pale blue eyes normally framed by gold-tinted glasses. His voice is nurturing and neutral — and it's been used in many capacities since he's been activated. He's consoled grieving families and counseled members of the Air Force seeking help. During Sunday services, he delivers a homily at the base's church. And although he has spent much of his time on active duty at Dover, he has also visited other military bases. He has even officiated a half-dozen funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

In September, he is scheduled to go to Iraq, where he will counsel fighters in the field, hoping he won't see too much of the violence that has made Dover such a busy place. At Dover, he tries to stay away from the news. But occasionally he catches reports on television that detail the deaths of service members in Iraq and thinks, “I'll be praying for them.”

Just last week, he saw the story of the three Marines, including Lance Corporal Patrick Adle, 21, of Bel Air, Maryland, killed in Baghdad by a roadside bomb.

When he saw the news, he knew their remains could arrive at Dover anytime, and he began thinking of what he would say on their behalf.

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