I have been to Arlington National Cemetery only three times that I can recall, twice as a tourist. I cringe at the word “tourist” because each time I visited in that capacity, I felt like I was dishonoring holy ground, as were my fellow tourists. Please don’t get me wrong; it is absolutely vital that as many Americans as possible visit Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects to the men and women who dedicated themselves to the protection and well-being of this blessed republic. We need to remember the price of our liberty, and those who gave their last full measure of devotion to preserve it.
It’s just that I couldn’t reconcile the idle chatter, summer garb and general conviviality of the hundreds of visitors with our presence at this somber and eternal resting place of the honored dead. My inclination was to be still and silent, and bow my head in reverence at every grave site; even then, I had to break the silence to explain to my guests the significance of a particular grave or tomb.
I was appalled at the ignorant yet apparently innocent lack of protocol during the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Hats remained on heads, conversation continued, salutes were unrendered, not even a right hand over the heart, and people behaved like – well, like tourists.
The third visit I paid to Arlington National Cemetery, however, was an honor and a privilege. I was invited to join the family of my former commanding officer, brother in Christ, and friend Raymond Allen Vitkus, on January 5th, 2011 as we laid him to rest. He succumbed to cancer on September 25, 2010.
I knew him as Lieutenant Colonel Ray Vitkus when I worked for him at the Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) in Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. I was in the last month or so of active duty, having made the decision, after the Gulf War and the military drawdown that followed, to pursue a private sector job and, I imagined at the time, my political dreams. He was a mild-mannered and often goofy supervisor who never seemed to let anything bother him.
As we got to know each other, and I changed from my blue uniform to my civilian suit and tie, yet still working for AFTAC as a contractor, I discovered his source of peace and strength. He was a devout Christian man, and deeply devoted to his wife, Kerry, and their daughters, Mary and Pam.
I remember visits to his home where the love between them was so pervasive I felt wholly inadequate as a father and husband! “How do they do that?” I wondered to myself.
I was finding my way back to Christ after a long hiatus from the church, and Ray was instrumental in helping me find my way home. He also supported me professionally, even after I left active duty and was looked upon differently by my former brothers and sisters in arms because I became a contractor. Ray knew I hadn’t changed, and he treated me as a trusted member of the team, just as he did when I was a junior officer in his charge.
We soon parted ways, but our paths would cross occasionally. I remember visiting the family one year when they were stationed in Germany, and I recall sitting outdoors at an eatery in downtown Washington, DC with Kerry as she contemplated God’s calling on her life. She answered that call and received her master’s degree in divinity from Duke University, and she has served the Lord in many roles since then, including pastor.
The girls, whose beauty on the outside was exceeded only by the beauty of their souls, grew up, went to college and graduated, fell in love, married good men, and now have beautiful children of their own.
As for Ray, he served his country with honor, receiving the Legion of Merit among many other awards and decorations for his accomplishments. Upon retirement from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of Colonel after 28 years, he continued his service with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The family eventually settled in North Carolina, and Ray looked forward to building a permanent home for them after decades of constant moves and upheavals.
He was first diagnosed with colon cancer in November 2004, and he took it on with his usual cheerfulness and “glass half full” attitude that I think alternatively delighted and exasperated those who knew him well! He simply found no flaw in life, and it was a gift God gave him that he was happy to share with others.
He beat the cancer in the first round, but it came back swinging in early 2009. He wrote me then and, as was his custom, wanted to talk about me first:
"Hi Ron...it's great to hear from you. Are you running for MD senator? I'd vote for you and campaign too if I was there. I hope your family is doing well. I bet your kids are brilliant. I am doing really well also. The cancer is back, but the doctors have an aggressive plan to give me lots of time to do God's work. He's not done with me yet! Anyway, I feel great and am about to finish chemo. Then I go for a major operation in March. Then Party on, dude! Have a terrific New Year, Ron, my friend. Love Ray"
He responded well to treatment and the cancer subsided, but in mid-July 2010, the cancer returned again. While the family thought they had 12 to 18 months left with him, God gave them only three. He spent the last five days of his life in comfort or palliative care, and the family was with him constantly until the end. His daughter Pam reflected on his last day:
Ray Vitkus went to be with the Lord peacefully on Saturday September 25, 2010 at 5:45pm. Mom, Mary and I were all there with him as he passed. Dad slept all day today and was never conscious. Last night before bed he said he loved us, kissed mom goodnight and wanted his picture taken with a big smile on his face. Throughout this whole process he has been the example of what it means to faithfully chase after God. Even today we had nurses coming in wanting to talk about dad's faith. Amazing!
Yes, he was amazing. He taught me how to be harmless as a dove, but wise as a serpent when it came to my career, and he showed me that a gentle, funny Christian soul could still lead with strength and honor. I remember the talk at AFTAC about how he was a “nice guy” but not aggressive enough to advance in leadership. They were so wrong. Advance he did, and he did it God’s way.
He is who I will have on my mind this Memorial Day. I know the day is reserved for those who served and died in battle, but I will remember Ray for his service and sacrifice in a lifetime of devotion to God, his country and his family. I now have a friend to visit when I go to Arlington National Cemetery, and as he rests with his fellow heroes, he can also rest assured that I will always stop by when I’m in the neighborhood. I invite you to read about his brief yet wonderful life, and thank him and thousands of others who set aside their selfish desires to give their all. Have a blessed Memorial Day.