No matter how many times I experience the crash of seven rifles simultaneously firing three volleys in a 21-gun salute, whether at a Memorial Day service in Forest Lawn or graveside at a military funeral, the reaction is always the same – it feels like a punch in the gut. Then the lone bugler starts playing taps, which accentuates the solemnity of the occasion, and always brings a tear to my eye. And when all this is occurring on the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery at the interment of a family member, it is emotionally overwhelming.
Col. Christopher Stephen Maggio, U.S. Army retired, was laid to rest in Arlington on Sept. 11, 2014, with full military honors. Uncle Chris, my wife Mary Ann’s uncle, was a World War II veteran, having served with distinction throughout the South Pacific during the war and later in assignments around the world. At the time of his death at age 93, he donated his body for medical research and his cremated remains were honorably interred.
As solemn as was the occasion, the setting and weather couldn’t have been more heartening. Bright blue skies welcomed us as we entered the gates of the U.S. Army post at Fort Myer, Va., and made our way to the Old Post Chapel, a beautiful red brick church with white columns and a tall, white steeple.
Family and friends filed in under the canopied entrance and were met by a uniformed Army sergeant who directed us to our seats. The regiment chaplain greeted our gathering and explained the solemnity of the occasion and that what was about to transpire was not done for entertainment or theater but because it was earned through Col. Maggio’s service and sacrifice. Eloquent and moving eulogies were presented by his son and grandson, and a brigadier general friend brought a little levity to the occasion with some fond memories.
At the conclusion of the service we followed two members of the Honor Guard bearing Uncle Chris’ remains out through the doors to the amazing sight of the full 3rd Infantry Regiment Honor Guard Platoon standing at parade rest. The flag-draped, casket-bearing caisson with a team of six dapple gray horses was in front of the chapel. The 18-member band was to our left, a six-man color guard centered the two sections of the 36-man rifle team to our right. All were clad in impeccable dress blues and the rifle team had fixed bayonets glistening in the sunlight. They all came to attention as the remains were placed in the caisson.
With visored caps and chin straps, white gloves cupping the butts of shouldered rifles and gleaming black shoes, the platoon then marched in cadence with muffled drums, through the adjacent gates and into the cemetery. The band led the cortege and the black, riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, symbolizing the fallen warrior, kept pace behind the caisson. This solemn procession led us among thousands of white marble headstones to the site of Uncle Chris’ final repose overlooking the Amphitheater at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The graveside ceremony culminated with the shattering blast of the 21-gun salute, the haunting notes of taps and the presentation of the meticulously folded flag to Aunt Ruth. Thus concluded this most esteemed and enduring ritual we were so honored to attend, while sadly reminding us, with the passing of Uncle Chris, of the diminishing numbers of these heroes that constitute the Greatest Generation.