Mother’s Day and Memorial Day Tribute

May 8, 2014  - By
Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery.

How a Haunting Memory Shaped My GIS Career

In the mid ’80s I set up the Navy’s first Geographic Information System (GIS) to accomplish the 1987 base closure study, now called the BRAC (Base Realignment Commission). That first experience with GIS convinced me to pursue GIS as my second career after retiring from the Navy. Fortunately, I was able to land an ideal final tour of duty as the Commanding Officer of the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center in Charlotte, N.C. I worked to get this position since at the time the University of North Carolina at Charlotte was one of the few universities starting a GIS master’s program, and taking some evening classes helped with my transition. Jack Dangermond, who I hadn’t heard of at the time, was the keynote speaker for program kick off.

That was a nice assignment after years of sea duty and other demanding assignments over an 18-year career, but one aspect would make this assignment hauntingly unforgettable. As the only active-duty Naval Officer within 50 miles of Charlotte, one of my collateral duties was to act as the Navy’s Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO). A CACO is the official representative of the Secretary of the Navy who notifies immediate family members in the event of a service member’s death or severe injury. Unlike some depictions in movies, military branches take special care to notify immediate family members in person not by phone. I did several of these notifications and learned to take a chaplain and corpsman with me in case there was traumatic reaction by the family members to the news.

It was an especially clear spring day when I received a message to notify a family of the death of their only son. He was a young man living his dream as a Navy diving officer. He worked hard to get there by earning an engineering degree from Duke University while also participating in the NROTC program. He was serving as the diving officer on a submarine rescue ship in the Mediterranean when he was killed in the line of duty. My job was to notify the family.

The chaplain, corpsman and I arrived at the home just as the mother and father returned from grocery shopping. As I knocked on the screen door the mother looked up and with a surprised smile on her face seeing the three of us in uniform she happily said, “Oh, you’re in the Navy!” and within a half second her voice dropped to a low painful tremble, “Oh no….my son is in the Navy.” She knew. She knew. In a half second she knew the Navy doesn’t send three uniformed people to deliver good news. The only thing I remember as she and her husband collapsed to the floor holding each other was her repeating “Oh no” “Oh no” and mention of her daughter-in-law, who was expecting.

I could only imagine how she felt after receiving the most horrific news a mother of an only child could receive. I felt like I had just plunged a long jagged dagger into her heart and each piece of additional information just twisted that dagger around further. I pictured her life as a mother racing before her — childbirth, his first steps, school, graduation, his wedding, pending fatherhood. Soon neighbors, friends and their local minister arrived to comfort the family.

Over the next several days, while the flag draped coffin made its way to North Carolina, I worked with the funeral home and family preparing for the graveside ceremony. I rehearsed our Navy team in preparation — six pall bearers, a firing squad, bugler, chaplain and myself. The day of the ceremony I inspected our sailors and as expected each man was inspection perfect. We loaded up the bus and headed out. The ride to the site was quiet, we all knew that this funeral was different from the numerous retiree funerals we had done. This young man was one of us, gone in the prime of his life serving his country.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

The ceremony went perfectly. The six sailors in their dress uniforms carried the flag-draped coffin to the burial site and stood at attention next to the coffin. Seven members of the firing squad positioned themselves several hundred feet away. We all stood at attention as the chaplain spoke. When he finished I nodded to the six pall bearers; they slowly grabbed the flag, lifted it, and stretched it out over the coffin. That was the signal for the seven-member firing squad to fire three volleys immediately followed by the playing of taps.

I know of no military member who doesn’t get choked up at the crack of the rifles followed by the melancholy playing of taps. As taps was playing, the pall bearers were folding the flag with precision. The goal is to fold the flag into a perfect tight triangle with only white stars and dark blue showing by the time taps is complete. They did a perfect job, and the lead petty officer then handed the flag to me. It was my task to walk over to the family and present the flag. “On behalf of grateful nation and proud Navy, I present this flag to you for the honorable service of your son and husband.” And that was it, the final capstone to a short and honorable life, or so I thought.

flagThe funeral director then announced that all were invited to the fellowship hall for a potluck luncheon. I dismissed the funeral team and we all headed over to the fellowship hall. The mood was less somber as family members and friends recalled the good times. It was nice to relax a bit and hear some fond memories of our departed shipmate. Soon it was time for us to go. While my team headed to the bus, I went to pay my last respects to the wife and parents. I shook hands with the wife, the father, and then as I offered my hand to the mother, she held it with both hands and said something that has haunted me to the core ever since.

Holding my hand ever so tightly she said, “I just wanted to let you know… how bad I felt for you having to deliver the news to me.” Her comment floored me. Three days before I had delivered the most painful news a mother could ever receive. I plunged a dagger into her heart that would never heal….and she felt bad for me? Speechless, I nodded and squeezed her hand back. I left shaking my head in disbelief. I had never met someone so selfless.

That was over 25 years ago, and the memory of her is just as fresh today. I don’t think that a week goes by without me thinking about her, and every time I do, I still shake my head in disbelief. She definitely left a mark on me. I’ve tried my best to honor her memory in my small way by doing the same thing many of you in the geospatial community do, working hard to provide the tools that may help minimize future flag-draped coffins. I’ve seen our geospatial tradecraft save lives — GIS, imagery, human geography, and now social media and cyber. So whether it’s the intelligence specialist in a Special Operations team, a cyber-analyst in D.C., a geospatial contractor in Huntsville, or the countless GIS personnel supporting first responders in local governments around the country, you all can feel great pride in your life-saving work.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that there are many people just like her who live quite decent lives doing their best and leaving indelible marks on the hearts and souls of those they meet. Mothers like her may not bask in limelight, but they have provided us with some remarkable citizens and military service members, and I understand the pain that each mother feels when we lose one of our shipmates. I was blessed to meet her and will never forget her.

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Art Kalinski

About the Author:

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

7 Comments on "Mother’s Day and Memorial Day Tribute"

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  1. Adrianne Hetherington says:

    Art,
    Very moving article. Very proud of you, cousin.
    I spoke with Paul Andrews, 94 years old, just yesterday. He recently returned from the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. He was a bomber pilot in WWII. He visited the WWII memorial. He said it was a trip of a life time.
    Take care.

  2. Jeff says:

    I’ve always enjoyed reading your arcticles and have never commented on any of them. This one went right to my core and recentered me to do the best I can in mountain rescue. Not just for our subjects, but the family members that quietly wait to hear from us.

  3. Art Kalinski says:

    Thanks, I’m glad I shared this story. She’s having an impact on many of us.

  4. Ray Caputo says:

    Not much to add except I am glad I had some tissues near by it hit home and makes me glad to know thta some how what I do everyday “may help minimize future flag-draped coffins”

    Well written Art

  5. Scott Lee says:

    Well done Art and what a difficult obligation to fulfill during your last duty station. I will be sharing with others. I didn’t have the tissues nearby but that didn’t stop the tears from flowing. Well written Sir.