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United Methodist chaplain affirms life at national cemetery

 


United Methodist chaplain affirms life at national cemetery

May 27, 2004

A UMNS Feature
By Pat Rogers*

WASHINGTON-- It’s not even noon, and already the bright sunshine and humidity have mourners at Arlington National Cemetery fanning themselves and looking for a little shady relief.

They’ve gathered on this day to say goodbye to a loved one who served in the Women’s Air Corp in World War II.

Despite the heat, United Methodist Chaplain Col. David Broyles seems cool in his full-dress Air Force uniform.

Broyles doesn’t have time to worry about the weather; his mind is on the deceased and their family.

“That's what we’re here for … to serve those families that come here,” he says. “I can't think of a better place to be than Arlington National Cemetery.”

The 57-year-old United Methodist minister has served as an Air Force chaplain for 27 years. He’s been stationed in Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom but calls his assignment at Arlington the highlight of his career.

Broyles presides over as many as four funerals a day at the 624-acre cemetery but he sees these somber occasions as a chance to affirm life, not mourn death.

“I am not surrounded by death,” Broyles says. “I am surrounded by life because of the families that come to celebrate life and the life that has touched them. Even though we are saying our last goodbyes to someone who has passed away, there is still a celebration of life here at Arlington.”

Despite the number of funerals he has to prepare for and perform, Broyles always manages to interview family members twice before each funeral in order to gather anecdotes and stories that go beyond the deceased’s military service.

“He always seems to be able to incorporate some of the history of the departed into his remarks and he always makes them feel very important,” says Linda Willey, one of the “Arlington Ladies,” an organization that helps family members on the day of the funeral.

“I think he has a wonderful … graveside manner,” she says.

On a walk through the rows of white stone grave markers, Broyles reflects on his weighty task.

“When the Honor Guard hands me that flag, and I turn to the family, I am the representative of the President of the United States,” he says.

“We want to get it right every time. When I am standing there ministering to that family I want them to know that their sacrifice has not gone unnoticed.”

His military ministry is different from the one he trained for while in seminary at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio.

“Our parish is not in a church-- it’s on the flight line, it’s on the front lines. It’s wherever the troops are deployed.”

Over the course of his career, Broyles has counseled Air Force pilots on their way into combat. He does not see any conflict in being a servant of God who counsels men and women whose job it is to defend their country at all costs.

“They are human beings and children of God and no matter where they are in the world our job is to be there with them…It is not our job to get involved in the politics of war,” he says.

On this hot and muggy day Broyles presides over the Women’s Air Corps veteran’s funeral: she joins the 290,000 thousand people who are buried at Arlington.

Broyles leads the Air Force’s casket team slowly, and with somber military precision, toward the open grave.

After the casket and flag are carefully laid out, Broyles performs a short ceremony. The words he speaks are private, meant only for the mourners.

When he’s finished, he backs away from the casket, and another Air Force officer steps up.

“Present arms,” shouts the officer. It’s a signal to start the rifle volley.

Seven young airmen and airwomen fire a rifle into the air.

Then, as if they were all joined together as one, the seven snap back into position and fire twice more.

When the rifle volley is complete a bugler plays “Taps.”

The ceremony is over in about 35 minutes.

“I can't think of any greater distinction than to provide ministry to family members of veterans, not only of World War II, but of the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Iraq on a daily basis,” Broyles says.

When the ceremony is over, Broyles doesn’t have much time to talk.

Almost right away he’s off, headed back to his office to learn the life story of another American, get ready to console another family and prepare for another funeral.

“It is an honor to be here and share these experiences with these families whose loved ones have sacrificed so much” Broyles says.

*Rogers is a writer and producer based in Washington.

News media can contact Kathy L. Gilbert at (615)742-5470 or e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

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