[September 16, 2016] It was ten years ago, almost to the day, that was one of the most difficult days I had during combat in Iraq but was also the day of a memorial service for a National Guard Engineer soldier from Iowa killed in action. We held no funeral there; all were in the U.S. hometown of the service member killed in combat. I go to both memorial services and funerals. It’s hard to do but I do it anyway because, to me as a leader, it’s the right thing to do.
By the time I was 18, I’d gone to perhaps a couple of dozen funerals. Awkward as I was, I never said the right things to relatives and friends of the deceased. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter much and often I think I was not even seen. I thought it important that my presence would somehow reflect on the life of the deceased and the morality of my attendance was needed.
What I didn’t recognize that by attending funerals and memorial services, I was slowly learning lessons in leadership that would help carry me forward in later years. Someone once said that “Funerals are for the living.” A successful leader doesn’t need to understand the emotions tied to those who know the deceased but that leader must be there and acknowledge those grieving for their loss.
Leadership means being present to honor those who have died, regardless of cause of death or inconvenience of attendance. As an 18-year-old I didn’t understand it, nor as a 48-year-old. But I went anyway and always made sure in my later years that I had something good to say about the one who had passed away. After many military funerals, I realized that while my presence would be remembered by those who mattered, but to me that was not important.
What counted was that I was there to personally honor someone I knew. Ten years ago sitting at a memorial service for that Engineer soldier, I sat next to an empty seat of another Army Colonel – and friend – that never missed a memorial service. Later that same day I discovered that he had been killed hours earlier in one of the few U.S. helicopter shoot-downs in Iraq. It was indeed a sad day.
I still always go to the funeral.
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Note: For a really good article with the same name, see Deirdre Sullivan’s comments here: http://www.npr.org/2005/08/08/4785079/always-go-to-the-funeral