On the night of September 8, 1952, my mother dreamed that my father’s plane was shot down over North Korea. My thirty-year-old mother, four-year-old sister and I lived in Germany, where my father was stationed. My mother called and begged my father’s commanding officer, to no avail, to have my father grounded. The next day my father’s plane was shot down.
My father, Obie, was a fighter pilot. On this mission he was a wingman and in the most vulnerable position. The formation swung wide after bombing their target—a North Korean military school on graduation day. Later we heard my father had parachuted out of his plane, but we never really knew what had happened. My sister and I grew up thinking he was alive, that he would come home some day. We never doubted he was a hero. His childhood dream of flying planes had come true: he was an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II and a captain in the U.S. Air Force when he went missing.
By the time I reached adolescence, the Vietnam War was creeping into consciousness. My Catholic childhood emphasized “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and I considered the war useless killing. I wondered, who is the enemy? I joined my generation at protest marches. When the Pentagon Papers revealed the extent of deception, I learned to distrust politicians and the military. My relationship with my father changed. I knew that if my father had been alive he would have fought in that war, too. I don’t remember actively judging him, but at some time he stopped being a hero to me. Was I embarrassed? I don’t know, but I certainly was not proud.
In January 1998 my sister and I attended one of the first POW/MIA conferences held for families of servicemen from the Korean conflict. By that time, I was a Buddhist practitioner and practiced ahimsa, nonharming, as a precept and intention for living my life. From the moment we arrived, I found myself unable to talk without crying. Strong feelings of aversion to the military and what they did in the world in the name of my government were met by equally strong feelings of loss. I felt confused as the Air Force personnel respectfully greeted us as “Captain O’Brien’s daughters” and welcomed us back to the Air Force family.
After lunch, an officer introduced himself and gave us a report that had recently been uncovered through Russian archives. I felt shaky as I read descriptions of my father I never knew: it said he had a scar on his third left finger and had short, fat feet—size 7E. I was shocked to read that he had died when his plane was shot down forty-five years before. Korean ground troops had found parts of a jet fighter and a machine gun; its serial number matched one from my father’s F-84. My heart raced and I thought I’d be sick.
At a celebration marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Korean War, my sister and I met the young Air Force lieutenant who had uncovered the details of our father’s death, one of the few cases that had been solved. He asked if he and his partner in the investigation, a Russian admiral, could escort us to an evening program honoring veterans and POW/MIA families. The South Korean ambassador would also attend, in gratitude for service to his country.
As bands played anthems from the Navy, Army and Marines, I squirmed at the display of militarism. But when the Air Force band started, my sister and I stood and sang along with every Air Force veteran and family member. Tears streamed down our faces. The lyrics “we live in fame and go down in flame” were all too real for us.
When the evening ended, my sister and I hugged our escorts. Each of us cried. I felt connected to these men and to a family—my father’s chosen family—the Air Force. My judgments against the military sat right next to my gratitude for their care and kindness.
In 2003 the keynote speaker was Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense and chief architect of the Bush Doctrine that led to the Iraq War. As troops were deployed, the military presence in Washington, DC, at the airport, on the mall, and at the conference was intense. When Wolfowitz said, “Together with you here, I am proud to be an American,” I could hardly sit still. Our government’s actions against Iraq sickened me. As I sat there, I thought about the families of the soldiers who would be killed in this new war.
On the sixtieth anniversary of my father’s death, we were told he was eligible for a full military memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery. We set the date for February 22, 2013. I invited family members from my father and my mother’s sides—several of whom I’d rarely seen after moving to California as a child.
As the date neared, my sister made a special request for a flyover, a military ceremonial ritual reserved for the most esteemed of fallen service members. I felt deeply grateful when a pilot and team from Dover Air Force Base volunteered to honor my father in this way.
When our families arrived at the memorial chapel at Fort Meyer in Arlington National Cemetery, Chaplain Cornelisse spoke with my sister and me. He held something in his hands and said, “I hope I don’t offend you in any way. This Buddhist ceremonial stick from South Korea was a gift to me and if you have a use for it, you are welcome to use it in the service.” Although my father was Catholic, my sister and I had wanted to include something Buddhist in the ceremony.
We were escorted to the chapel and settled into the front pew. The doors opened and Chaplain Cornelisse asked all to rise. He walked up the aisle followed by a solitary Air Force airman who carried a folded American flag, its shape reminiscent of the tricornered hats worn by soldiers of the American Revolution. As the organist played “Amazing Grace,” the airman placed the flag on the altar. The flag lay between a black-and-white photo of my father’s birth family and the only color photo we have of him. When I saw the dark blue pouch that contained my mother’s ashes (my sister had placed it on the altar), I cried.
The chaplain spoke of my father’s life in terms of sacrifice for our nation, for my grandson Max in the second row, and for generations to come. I thought about sacrifice—giving up something you want to keep—to get or to do something to help someone else. My father had given his life for something he deeply believed in. His death changed the course of my life and my family’s. I’m sure he wanted to live, to be with us. I wondered, who can know another’s intentions? Who am I to judge him?
I was called to the podium to eulogize my father, Obie, whom I had known for just two years. I spoke of who I knew him to be from stories and photos. “He was a son, a brother, a nephew, a husband, a father, an uncle, a pilot, a teacher. He didn’t get to be a grand-father, great-grandfather or father-in-law.”
I used colors to paint his picture as seen through a system of Chinese knowledge: blue, green, yellow and red symbolized energy, courage, thoughtfulness and happiness. Black described old photographs and death. White described the unresolved grief of families of men who were POW/MIA and the compassion that held all.
I read Mary Oliver’s poem “Peonies,” relating it to my father’s life—the beauty, the brave, the exemplary—paraphrasing the last lines: He was wild and perfect for a moment, before he was nothing forever. I ended by slapping the South Korean stick three times. Symbolically taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, I felt held.
Chaplain Cornelisse offered words of prayer. The incense and Gregorian chant from Catholic masses of my childhood were gone but the same reverence was palpable in this chapel that honored the dead.
The recessional began as the airman again carried the flag and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” played from the organ. Outside, the scene looked like a movie set. The gray skies had opened, and snowflakes fell over six white horses hitched to a carriage that carried a flag-draped coffin. The coffin was empty; I remembered reports that confirmed my father’s body had been blown up when his plane was shot down.
The Honor Guard, representing every member, past and present, of the USAF, stood at attention and saluted. The Color Guard stood between two men with rifles. One carried an American flag and the other carried banners from past U.S. military actions. A solitary airman carried the black-and-white POW/MIA flag and stood behind the casket where my father’s body would have lain. I believed the words on the flag: You Are Not Forgotten. Our family and sixty military personnel stood together.
“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” reverberated through the cool haze. I remembered singing it as a kid at Fourth of July picnics. The mile-plus walk to the memorial site felt like a pause between two breaths. Snowflakes fell softly, and touching my cape, they evaporated, like my memories of my father. The Air Force Ceremonial Brass Band marched ahead of the horse-drawn carriage.
The marches—“God Bless America” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—felt like a part of my skin. I lifted my knees and my arms swung: left-right-left-right. I remembered marching with my first grandson, teaching him as my mother said my father taught me, using pots and pans to beat out marches.
We walked past the Lee Mansion, signs for the Kennedy brothers’ graves, and rows and rows of tombstones, some with small flags, some with flowers, but most of them bare on this cold winter day. I thought of all the lives, all the wars, all the loss. The effects of war were all around, yet I felt a sense of peace in this place that held so many bodies, so much grief.
We stopped at noon. Recorded anthems from each branch of the military played in succession throughout the thousands of acres of Arlington National Cemetery.
Silence followed the anthems—a welcome pause. The Air Force chief mortician then told us to look up and to the east. “In three minutes the plane will fly overhead to honor Captain O’Brien.” We looked and waited. “Two minutes. One minute.” I watched the low-flying C-17 approach, tipping first one wing, then the other to honor my father. I heard no other airplane sound for ten minutes; all air traffic had been stopped over Dulles and Reagan airports to allow for its passage.
The seven-man firing party stood on the hilltop above my father’s tombstone. I saw my mother’s ashes that my sister had scattered on the ground and knew my mother would have been proud.
Three rounds fired in perfect unison—a twenty-one-gun salute—broke the silence as final honors were rendered. I took a moment to breathe in the chill stillness that followed. Then the sound of taps, the haunting melody first used as a funeral song at the burial of a fallen union artilleryman in 1862, filled the air and my entire being.
Day is done/Gone the sun/From the lakes/From the hills/From the sky/All is well/Safely rest/God is nigh….
We watched as the Body Bearers team took the flag off the caisson, and precisely folded it into another tricornered form. An airman held it to his chest, presented it to Chaplain Cornelisse, and saluted.
The chaplain knelt down and handed it to me. Although he performs several funerals a week at Arlington, in that moment his every word, every look, connected with me. He said, “Your father gave his life for his country, for what he believed in. We are grateful for his sacrifice. In life he honored the flag, and in death the flag will honor him.”
He told us my father had earned an air medal with three oak clusters for heroism on four separate occasions. He continued, “Obie raised his hand and said, ‘Here I am. Take me.’ Obie walked through the shadow of death. He left a memory, a legacy. Live that legacy. Tell his story often in your hearts and minds.”
As the service ended, an unknown woman knelt in front of my sister and me and expressed her sympathy. The “Arlington Lady” represents the Air Force. She stands in for all those who would, but could not, be present to pay final respects.
We stood as the group of airmen formally exited—marching to a drum roll. I looked up to the gray sky as a group of geese flew by and the words of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” went through my head.
People ask me if the memorial brought closure. Last summer I heard the Portuguese word saudade for the first time. It was coined long ago when sailors left homes and families in search of the New World. Saudade is a feeling of longing, of missing something or someone you loved. It refers not only to those who left, but also to those left behind. It is a constant feeling that something is missing—and also, sometimes, a great joy that you have people and places to miss.
“No one left behind” is a motto describing the Department of Defense’s effort to recover military men who—like my father—go missing in service. Did the wound close with his memorial, did the feeling of saudade vanish? No. I think the wound opened more, and in that opening a healing occurred. I bow.