The rigid rows of marble headstones follow the hills and hollows of Arlington National Cemetery — overwhelming, humbling, heart-sickening. War is brotherhood, sacrifice and valor. War is destruction, sorrow and death. Is there any place other than Arlington where the complex wages of war weigh so profoundly on the spirit?
Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, was killed in action on April 8, 2017, in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, fighting ISIS forces. He was interred in Arlington on Wednesday, May 10, at 1 p.m.
I rode through the cemetery with Cynthia Riddle, a staff member of the Army National Military Cemeteries. She was escorting me through the first military interment, with full honors, that I had ever witnessed. Cynthia parked beside the narrow road so that I could watch the transfer of the casket from the hearse to the caisson, drawn by six white horses- Percherons — two abreast.
An Army band had formed up in a small circle of grass beside the transfer point, playing a soft dirge as soldiers of the Army’s Old Guard lifted the casket, placing it securely on the caisson. Soldiers rode three of the horses and a fourth sat astride a separate white horse alongside them.
The family members emerged from their vehicles, gathering to walk behind the caisson to the site of the ceremony. Marching behind the chaplain, the band tapped out a solemn drumbeat until the procession reached a large open grassy area where no grave markers stood. A rigid metal shelter with delicate fretwork at the corners shaded the family’s seating and the bier where the casket would rest during the ceremony.
As the pallbearers moved the casket from the caisson over the grass to the bier, the band softly played a hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” A ninth soldier took a stance at the head of the casket, maintaining rigid attention.
Before the family was seated, the band played “America the Beautiful” as the pallbearers unbanded the flag from the casket and held it taut and flat, centered above coffin. After the seating of the family, Army Chaplain Hubbs began the service with a prayer.
I stood off to the side at the foot of the casket. Across from me at the head of the casket, a small unit of Green Berets had gathered. Special Forces troops. Staff Sgt. De Alencar was one of their brothers.
Following a recitation of the 23rd Psalm, Chaplain Hubbs addressed the family, reminding them that “we are not here to say goodbye. We are here to say farewell for now.” His white-gloved hands moved to emphasize his words, reassuring the widow and five children that they would be reunited in due time with the husband and father they were grieving.
After the chaplain finished, seven soldiers bearing rifles fired three volleys. Then a bugler, standing at a distance, played “Taps.”
As the last note of “Taps” died away, the pallbearers began to fold the flag they had held over the casket during the ceremony. Great care was taken. Many hands supported the flag in a precise ritual to ensure that it would never touch the ground. The soldier standing at the head of the casket took the folded flag, made an about-face, and handed it to a Green Beret general.
The general took the flag, knelt on one knee before Natasha De Alencar, and placed it in her hands, speaking a few quiet words to her. She nodded her head quickly several times, grasping the general’s hand, not in the traditional handshake, but with her four fingers grasping his four white-gloved fingers, forming a link. When he stood, she clutched the flag to her chest, rocking gently to and fro.
A folded flag was given to all five children in the same manner, the general placing a reassuring hand on the shoulder of each child before he stood. One of the older boys wiped away tears with the heel of his hand.
The widow then stood, walked to the casket and affixed something I couldn’t see to an adhesive strip along the center of the coffin. She knelt, laid her head on the edge of the silver metal coffin, and kissed it.
One by one, the Green Berets affixed something, too. Four young women dressed in black did the same.
At the end of the ceremony guests were invited to speak to the family. All the Green Berets knelt in turn before each family member, but, oddly, in line with them was a black-suited man in a wheelchair, attended by a woman I assumed to be his wife. When she pushed him up to the casket, he slid a folded note into a seam in the top of the coffin.
He stood up, and only then did I realize that his right leg had been amputated at the knee. He stood surely, without struggle, and — balanced on one leg — executed a slow, solemn salute.
As the mourners were preparing to return to their cars, I approached the four young women and asked what they had placed on Staff Sgt. De Alencar’s casket.
“The Special Forces crest,” one said.
Another explained that their husbands were part of SSG De Alencar’s 12-man team and were still deployed in Afghanistan. What had been going through their minds as their husbands’ fellow warrior was laid to rest?
I had not asked to speak to the family. It would have been presumptuous. But I found myself longing to tell Mrs. De Alencar that an ordinary, grateful American had felt privileged to witness the final page in a good man’s life.
Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar gave his life fighting those who are determined to do us harm — like thousands before him in the history of our country. It is impossible to fully apprehend a depth of courage and commitment that holds firm even to death. But we can honor the long line of patriots who have protected us in one simple way.
Live worthy of their sacrifice.
Carol Megathlin is a writer living in Savannah and Fairhope, Alabama.