Six soldiers towered over the silver casket. With a quick snap of their wrists, they lifted the American flag draping it.
Steadily and solemnly, they held it up.
Off in the distance, seven soldiers dressed in their finest blue uniforms pointed ceremonial rifles toward the grave site.
The three rifle volleys they fired symbolically told the dozens of weeping loved ones gathered around the casket that the Army had cared for its dead. The Army had brought Sgt. Michael Peek home and placed him in his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.
A lone bugler standing in Arlington's field of white tombstones came to life. The notes of taps began strongly and ended softly. Civil War soldiers had played the tune to tell their comrades the day was done, the lights were out.
Peek, a 23-year-old who graduated from a Norfolk high school and whose mother and stepfather reside in Isle of Wight County, was one of three soldiers killed in Iraq on March 3. A roadside bomb exploded near their Humvee while on a combat patrol through Baghdad.
The flag the soldiers held high above Peek's casket had traveled home with him from Iraq. It draped his casket when the family received it from Dover Air Force Base last week at a funeral home in Smithfield. After folding it tightly into a small triangle, Army Brig. Gen. Rodney L. Johnson formally presented it Tuesday to Kathy Jordan, Peek's mother.
"I'm here to honor a fellow soldier," Johnson said at the graveside ceremony. "I'm here to honor a fellow military policeman. And I'm here to honor a true American hero."
At the funeral service, which was held at the Fort Myer Chapel near Arlington, Johnson also presented Peek's mother and father with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart he earned but died before receiving.
U.S. Sen. John Warner stopped by the chapel to extend his sympathies to the family. Dozens of soldiers -- from general to colonel and command sergeant major to specialist -- sat in the pews as an Army chaplain blessed Peek's casket and encouraged his family to celebrate his life. At the grave site, acting Secretary of the Army Pete Geren stood off to the side, showing his respect through his presence.
There were 21 funerals at Arlington on Tuesday. While not all of those were for troops killed in Iraq, 319 men and women killed in that war have been buried at Arlington. Ten had ties to Hampton Roads.
Peek had been scheduled to leave Iraq on Tuesday for a two-week leave from the war zone. That he was buried that day instead was not lost on his family.
During that two-week vacation, Peek had been scheduled to marry Melanie Link. On a personal Web page he updated from Iraq, Peek counted down the days to his March 26 wedding and told the world he was lucky to have found such an extraordinary woman.
Link sat in the front of the chapel Tuesday constantly wiping tears away.
It's been hard for her, said her mother, Joy Link. But when she returns to Germany, where she and Peek made all their memories and were supposed to wed, the pain is bound to intensify.
Steve Jordan, Peek's stepfather, said the family is "holding in there."
The last couple of weeks have been as busy as they've been emotional. Before coming to Arlington, the family had to get through the delivery of the tragic news, informing Peek's friends and loved ones, receiving the body from Dover Air Force Base and a memorial service at Colonial Funeral Home in Smithfield.
"I don't know where we're going to land in a couple of weeks," Steve Jordan said. "For Mel, there's another hurdle to cross -- the day they were supposed to get married."
Melanie Link struggled to leave Peek's grave site after the ceremony concluded, spending several moments alone with Peek before becoming the last family member to turn away.
Kathy Jordan walked away first, crying and clutching tightly her folded flag.
Before making her way out of Section 60, the area of Arlington where those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been buried, she stopped to pay her respects at another grave site.
There was no tombstone at the site, just an index card-size slip of paper bearing the name of a young woman. There was no grass. The dirt was still loose from a Friday burial.
The woman beneath the soil was one of the soldiers killed alongside Peek in the Humvee explosion. Kathy Jordan felt for that young soldier, too. She wept for her family as well.
Before Peek headed off to war, he told his mother to bury him in Arlington if anything happened to him. He said it would be an honor to be buried there.
Looking beyond Peek's casket before leaving, Kathy Jordan could see the fields of white tombstones. Arlington is sacred. It is hallowed ground. Peek deserved burial there with all the honors bestowed on him.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times