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Right Opinion

A Simple Photo Inspires on Memorial Day

Rebecca Hagelin · May 28, 2019

I’m not going to pretend that I wanted to work on a column during this long Memorial Day weekend. I intended to enjoy the time off, just relaxing.

But when my husband showed me a picture of the tombstone of his Naval Academy classmate, Capt. Gerald DeConto, I was shamed by my selfishness. I also became eager to fulfill the purpose of Memorial Day by writing a tribute to my husband’s fellow sailor.

It is our honor to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives fighting for our freedom — including our right to choose what we do with everything from our finances to our talents to our days off.

Memorial Day is for them — not us.

Capt. DeConto’s story is a reminder that our armed forces are never truly safe — at home or abroad. I’ll share with you now, in honor of all of America’s fallen heroes, my memory of the day that Capt. DeConto was interred after being murdered nearly 18 years ago in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Rifle shots cracked through the sunny, warm autumn afternoon in the 21-gun salute for the fallen naval officer. The lone bugle’s mournful notes of “Taps” rang strong and somber as we stood in silence to honor the man and his country.

It was Nov. 2, 2001, nearly eight weeks after his death, when Capt. Gerald DeConto was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is within sight of the Pentagon, where he was murdered by terrorist thugs. At his final resting place all it takes to view his unlikely battlefield is to lift your gaze just beyond the trees.

A memorial now stands there, where sworn enemies of America crashed a plane filled with innocent civilians into the Pentagon. Not since the Civil War have U.S. soldiers been buried beside their battlefields on our own home soil. It is a sobering thought.

As we stood at his graveside, I couldn’t help but marvel at the mystery that is life and how everything seems so uncertain even in places where we think we are safe.

I thought about the many times he had been at sea, had trained to face the enemy, and had said goodbye and hello to his family. Who would have ever believed or even dreamed that he would be killed not during a war but within the borders of our own country — within the very fortress of the Pentagon?

As I watched his stoic mother receive the folded U.S. flag that had draped Capt. DeConto’s gray casket, I wondered at the irony of his death.

The wonderful woman who had raised her son to be a patriot had no doubt beamed with pride at the news of his acceptance to Annapolis, his graduation, and his promotions. She probably had shed tears each time he set off and worried about him during his tours at sea.

But on Sept. 11, 2001, she had no reason to worry: Her son was on shore duty, safe within the walls of the Pentagon as the senior watch officer in the Navy Command Center.

Killed on duty in the Pentagon. Who would have believed it possible? He was murdered by terrorists fewer than 60 miles from the Naval Academy. Until 9/11, such atrocities were attempted only in Tom Clancy novels.

A few hours before the burial, we were in the academy’s majestic chapel attending a funeral that not only honored this brave man but also paid tribute to the civilians who were murdered that day in freedom’s very home — America.

Capt. DeConto would have gladly given his life to save his fellow Americans who died with him that day.

He never knew that he did save the lives of many: Capt. DeConto ordered back to their offices dozens of people who had gathered in the Command Center to watch the television coverage of the tragedy at the Twin Towers.

Minutes after they had dispersed, the plane crashed into the very spot they had been standing, obliterating the watch office and its senior officer.

Capt. DeConto died a hero while doing his job — like all who have given their lives for us.

This is why we must remember.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at [email protected]

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