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Arlington duty proved significant for chaplain

 


Arlington duty proved significant for chaplain

May 23, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery are called the “Virginia Planters” because of all the funerals they perform for the nation’s military.

But the Rev. Ted Hepner gave himself a new title when he served as United Methodist Army chaplain at Arlington from 1982 to 1985.

“I changed my title to ‘launch control officer,’” he says. “The Virginia Planters were planting them in the ground, but as launch control officer, I was launching them from this world to the next.”

During the time he served at Arlington, he averaged about 25 funerals a week. Though it was not an assignment he wanted, he says it turned out to be one of the most significant of his career.

“To me it is a privilege to be selected for that kind of duty because you are caring for those who have given their most,” he says. “It is a privilege to be with the families at a time of their deepest need.”

During his career as a chaplain, Hepner served tours of duty in Italy, Germany, Korea and Vietnam. He was senior Army chaplain during his years at Arlington.

He was reluctant to take the assignment because he wanted a “total” ministry.

“I had avoided hospital ministry because it was too specialized, short-term and crisis oriented. I liked the opportunity to have total ministry where you have some opportunities to celebrate baptisms, weddings, confirmations—things that help brighten as well as help somber our faith.

“As it turned out, it was one of my most significant ministries just because of the depth of the contact I had with so many people.”

An emotional toll

Over the years, Hepner received numerous letters of appreciation, and those letters helped him “balance the work.”

“There were times when I would literally come home in tears, especially (after) services involving little children,” he says. “Their father was killed in service, the widow and youngster are there—it gets difficult.”

The services take an emotional toll on all the soldiers involved, he says, including those who carry the casket, serve in the firing squad, and march or play in the band.

“Frequently they (the soldiers) would tend to distance themselves,” he says. “They would call a burial a ‘drop’ and things like that, so it wouldn’t become so personalized. It was a very demanding assignment for everyone.”

Hepner’s wife, Mae, helped him through those times and also served as one of the Arlington Ladies, a volunteer group that attends all the funerals and represents the Army Chief of Staff. The group was started so no service member would be buried without someone at the funeral. The women also write a letter to the family thanking them for their loved one’s years of service.

“The reason they started was many people lived so long or came from so far away people were not able to attend. They would just have a representative from the funeral home,” she says.

“It is very taxing on the emotions at first, but then you kind of get into the feel of it, and once you do it a couple of times it seems easier. One day a month we would serve.”

Mae recalls times when Ted came home sobbing.

“Children would really pull his strength, or a young family (with a) young father or mother dying. It was really, really hard,” she says. “I am sure I couldn’t have done it.”

Hepner says many times he wouldn’t know anything about the deceased except his or her military record. Often he only met the family just 30 minutes before the service.

“At one of the funerals, as I read the Scripture and prayed on behalf of the deceased, the daughter came up and said, ‘How do you know she is a Christian?’ I said, ‘I don’t; I haven’t met your mother, but all I can do is entrust her to God’s care.’ The daughter was a fundamentalist and was convinced that because her mother was of a different persuasion she was condemned already.”

He saw the funerals or graveside services as opportunities to help people reflect on their faith.

“If our faith speaks to us at all, it certainly has to be at a time of passage. We cling closely to the promises Christ made that where he goes, we will be also. This is what I focus on.”

Strong memories

Hepner says being in the Washington area meant dignitaries were often at the funerals. He remembers President Ronald Reagan attending a funeral in which Hepner was the escort officer. Another time, Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor was asked to speak at a wreath ceremony.

“He said, ‘You know I have this walker that helps walk, a pacemaker that tells my heart when to beat, hearing aid that helps me hear and glasses that help me see, but I still decide when I’m going to eat, and I’m still in charge!’ It was those kinds of things that perked you up and picked you up along the way.”

Several funerals remain clear in his mind, like one for a baby girl who died soon after birth.

“I didn’t know the family. I went to the graveside and there they were, standing with a balloon.” He remembers thinking the couple, who had two young children with them, weren’t taking the service very seriously. At the end of the service, they released the balloon.

“In talking with them, I realized they had the name of the baby tied to the string on the balloon. When they released it, we all stood and watched it until it went out of sight. I thought what a beautiful teaching example that was for the two children. It helped them understand what happened to the little baby sister they were looking forward to and excited about. It was a symbol of how she returned to God.”

At another rainy service he remembers seeing a stranger standing close by the family. As the wind blew, Hepner could see he was carrying a rifle. Then he noticed that the son of the deceased was in handcuffs.

“He obviously had been released from prison to come to the funeral service, under guard. I was totally unaware of this.” Hepner says all he could do was offer was a word of hope to the widow who had just lost her husband and knew her son was going back to prison.

When things go wrong

A service at Arlington can be the most meaningful service anywhere when it goes well, he says. “But when it doesn’t go well, it goes bad.”

Once, a veteran’s body dropped out of the bottom of a casket as it was being carried to the graveside, he says.

“What had happened was he was an older veteran and didn’t have any family, and they contract those funerals out,” Hepner explains. In those cases, the funeral goes to the lowest bidder, and the plywood box was not made very well. “I’m sure they never used that contractor again.”

Another time during a full honors funeral, a representative of the funeral home, while trying to get a flower off the casket for the widow, slipped and fell in the hole.

“You can imagine what it did to the military unit standing there. I mean, we all did everything we could to keep from chuckling,” he says. “But the tragedy was the widow, in the process of all of this sudden flurry of activity, just fell apart and threw herself on the casket. We had to physically pull her off and lead her out. There are a lot of things that can and sometimes do go wrong.”

Any active-duty or retired service member can be buried at Arlington, but Hepner says the cemetery is getting full. It will probably be full about the year 2020, and other national cemeteries will have to be used, he says.

The survivors of every service member buried at Arlington National Cemetery get a brochure from the United States Army chaplains, “A Tribute to a Soldier.” It contains Scripture, pictures and a history of Arlington. On the last page is printed, “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.”

Hepner says, “Nothing says Memorial Day to me more than that.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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