News: Kennedy Burial Steeped in Military, Personal Symbolism
ARLINGTON, Va. - Twenty-six years ago, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy received a dire letter from a member of his Massachusetts constituency.
A poor Boston woman with flagging health was pregnant with her first child. Unable to afford health care, her letter was a plea for the coverage she desperately needed. Kennedy personally responded.
"She might not have even had kids," Army Sgt. John Kenney said of his mother. "I might not be here today if it wasn't for him."
As Kenney narrates the circumstances surrounding the "high-risk" birth he survived, he crosses his arms and bears a tattoo with "Boston" scrawled in block letters across his right forearm. But tomorrow, the sergeant's ink homage will be obscured by the sleeves of his Army dress uniform, his hands covered with white gloves.
Kenney, a member of an elite team of military members, will lay his hometown hero's remains to rest at Arlington National Cemetery here.
"When I heard he was being buried down here, my first thought was: 'I have to be on that team,'" he said.
Despite any sense of personal connection or the prominence associated with the senator, Kenney and other members of the "casket team" assigned to overseeing the senator's remains from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., agree that their focus on their mission will be unwavering when duty calls.
This level of precision is customary throughout the military traditions will be evident throughout ceremonies honoring Kennedy, as the services join the nation in bidding farewell to the "Lion of the Senate."
Splashed on newspaper front pages across the country Aug. 28 were images of steadfast service member pall bearers leading Kennedy's flag-draped casket to a procession that departed Aug. 27 from Hyannis Port, Mass., where the senator succumbed to his battle with brain cancer Aug. 25. The procession then traveled to Boston, where Kennedy will lie in repose until his funeral Mass and burial here.
Kennedy's coffin will arrive tomorrow afternoon at Andrews Air Force Base, where Kenney and the seven other members of the team will prepare the casket for a motorcade bound for Arlington National Cemetery. At the cemetery, a separate casket team and its commanding officer will assume responsibility. Teams are jointly composed of members of each military branch, with Army members hailing from the the 3rd Infantry Regiment, or "Old Guard."
The senator's coffin will be enshrouded in a U.S. flag, with the blue field over his left shoulder. The custom began in the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when a flag was used to cover the dead as they were taken from the battlefield on a caisson.
Kennedy's service in the Army and his tenure as an elected official made him eligible for burial at the nation's most hallowed military cemetery. But Kennedy's contribution to the U.S. military endured long after he left the Army.
The senator was a vocal champion of legislation such as the Goldwater-Nichols act, which vastly reorganized the armed forces as a joint structure, and of military pay reforms, which ushered in the most comprehensive reforms of the military and defense establishment since the end of World War II.
Graveside military honors will include the firing of three volleys each by seven servicemembers. This commonly is confused with an entirely separate honor, the 21-gun salute. But the number of individual gun firings in both honors evolved the same way. The three volleys came from an old battlefield custom. The two warring sides would cease hostilities to clear their dead from the battlefield, and the firing of three volleys meant that the dead had been properly cared for and the side was ready to resume the battle.
In keeping with tradition, an Army bugler will play "Taps," which originated in the Civil War with the Army of the Potomac. Union Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield didn't like the bugle call that signaled soldiers in the camp to put out the lights and go to sleep, and worked out the melody of "Taps" with his brigade bugler, Pvt. Oliver Wilcox Norton. The call later came into another use as a figurative call to the sleep of death for soldiers.
In a final gesture, the surviving members of Kennedy's family will receive the flag that draped the senator's coffin.
As with all military burials in which he's participated in the past two years, Kenney said he is striving to achieve technical perfection during the ceremony.
"We try to get it so the family says, 'I'm so proud how they honored our loved one,'" he said. "We go into doing the same thing we do with every funeral, and that's to give them their last honors."
But in a moment of introspection, Kenney revealed the personal symbolism underlying tomorrow's ceremony.
"It feels like it's come full circle," he said. "He helped me get here, and I'm going to see him out."