The passing of the greatest generation

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The death of one man symbolizes the passing of what Tom Brokaw called ‘the greatest generation.’

The flag-draped coffin of Walter Scheffler of Barnesville rested before us as we walked into the small Lutheran church recently.

Walter was a quiet man with bright eyes and a big smile. Since the death of Violet, his wife of 53 years, in 2002, Walter continued to live on the family farm—active and engaged–until he was 91 years old.

Walter served his country as an army infantryman in World War II from 1941-45. A good soldier, he experienced the horrors of war.

I noticed a blue cord on Walter’s right arm.

The church hushed and the dozen honorary pallbearers marched to the front pews. These veterans—some old, some middle-aged—from wars long ago and far away—represented the grandeur of the human spirit. Their time as a generation comes to an end; their work almost done.

A young man stood tall and spoke from his heart:

“World War II was an era when men were defined by their actions. Our brave fathers, husbands, sons, and friends were called to fight in a foreign land against a tyrant that cared nothing for God, His people, or God’s creation.

“Grandpa was one of those men. He was one of millions of brave soldiers that the United States called into service. They didn’t ask to be a part of this war, but their country called them and they responded with honor and character. They rallied to the greater good, shed their blood, gave their lives, and defended our freedoms from tyranny.

“Grandpa served in a time when the gallant distinction of infantry, and what they bring to a battlefield, was not fully honored.

“In 1951, the army leadership sought to encourage and recognize foot soldiers that were bravely fighting intense battles in Korea. They soon adopted the Infantry Blue Cord. This cord would only be worn by fully qualified infantrymen and would announce for all to see that these men would be on the front line when our nation was at war.

“I had the honor of serving our great nation as one of those honored and distinguished infantrymen. I was awarded the coveted Infantry Blue Cord. I then completed my time in the military burying our honored dead at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.

“It is with a heavy heart and great honor that my coveted blue cord is now placed on a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather in recognition of the service he provided, the man he was, the life he lived, the man that God called him to be, and the man that is now enlisted in the heavenly ranks.”

Some wept openly—others silently—at this young man’s fire, idealism, and reverence for the old soldier.

We drove as a pilgrimage to the cemetery in the country. We gathered under the canopy that sheltered the coffin of the humble man we honored. The cold wind blew and snowflakes dotted the gray land and forlorn trees prepared by fall for the sleep of winter.

The young man who spoke so eloquently—a former Army Ranger–folded the American flag–slowly and with precision. He stepped forward and pivoted to face Walter’s son Rodney, flanked by sister Beverly and brother Richard. Walter’s seven grandchildren wept openly at the power and deep dignity of the moment.

The proud infantryman whispered: “Rodney, it is truly an honor and a privilege to be able to present this flag to you in recognition of grandpa’s dedicated and faithful service.” He saluted—smart and strong. Rodney, eyes glistening, returned the tribute.

The honor guard of old men stood behind us on the boundary of the cemetery and a corn field. They pointed the muzzles of their rifles over Walter’s casket and fired a 3-volley salute. A trumpeter blew taps.

Walter returned to the earth he loved.

At the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” an aged Ryan visited the grave of the soldier played by Tom Hanks, who had saved him. Ryan was an average man who worked, raised a family, and lived an everyday life. He knelt at the grave and said with great emotion to his wife: “Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve led a good life.”

Daughter Beverly answered Ryan’s questions for Walter: “He provided for us, protected us and cared for us. I’m glad God sent him to be our Dad.”

The same can be said of a generation.

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