It was the most memorable Veterans Day of my life.
As many recognized the sacrifices made by the living I paid my respects to someone who sacrificed it all. His name was Sgt. Daniel Shaw of West Seneca N.Y. I was doing home visits with the pilgrim statue of our Lady of Fatima in Western New York when the area was shocked by the news of his untimely death. Although I did not know Sgt. Shaw, I felt that paying my last respects to a young man who died for his country was the best way I could spend Veterans Day.
“The Angels Must be Watching Over Me”
As I entered the room where he was laid out, I saw his flag-draped coffin with two soldiers on either side, in impeccably pressed uniforms and black patent leather shoes. Every half hour, they would change in a military fashion which added a refreshing and solemn note of ceremony.
In front of the coffin was Sgt. Shaw’s uniform neatly arranged on a display easel. On the shoulder of his jacket was a crest with the words “Keep up the Fire.” Behind his coffin were several dozen red roses, white baby’s breath and an appropriate blue ribbon to give the national colors.
In the next room were poster boards with pictures of Sgt. Shaw along with childhood mementos. Among them was a religious drawing done by the fallen soldier when he was only 10 years old. It was a picture of Our Lord agonizing in the Garden of Olives with a simple caption written in the block letters of a child that said: “Jesus is my Shepherd.” Underneath was a picture of the handsome little boy who would grow up to be a proud soldier.
The Shaws are a Catholic family and the religious side of their son was evident after he suffered an earlier injury from an RPG which exploded close to him. He was sprayed by shrapnel but spared serious injury by his Kevlar vest. “The angels must be watching over me,” he told his mother, “keeping me safe.” His mother recounted how this incident did not shake his commitment and he remained upbeat and motivated.
“He wanted to be a soldier,” his father, Ronald Shaw, told me. “He wanted to make a difference, to make the world a better, safer place.”
As I sat there in the funeral home parlor, I had plenty of time to absorb the scene before me. I reflected long and hard on the fact that Sgt. Shaw, like all of our soldiers in the Middle East, was not drafted. He voluntarily joined the army knowing that he would be sent into harm’s way. It seemed to me that if he gave his life for us, the least I could do was spend time thinking about what it all meant.
As friends of the family approached the bier, I could not help but notice how they all seemed to be dwarfed in the presence of his flag-draped coffin. This was partly due to the imposing, somewhat intimidating, presence of soldiers standing at attention on either side, but there was something else. It seemed to me that this regular hometown boy was somehow transformed by having given everything. This became evident when Brig. Gen. Thomas Cole, the highest-ranking officer, approached. After clicking his heels in front of the coffin he slowly and ceremoniously brought his right hand up in a solemn salute. After a brief prayer, he made another solemn salute before doing an about-face and walking away.
It was then that the thought occurred to me how a man such as Sgt. Daniel Shaw is not just the son of a grief-stricken father and broken-hearted mother. The sacrifice he made somehow makes him America’s son. The nation cannot help but embrace him as its own. I was a total stranger, for example, visiting from out- of-state, yet I felt welcome as if I too were a member of the Shaw family as did the many other strangers who filed past the flag-draped coffin offering condolences to his family.
Sgt. Raleigh Heekin
Before leaving the funeral home on that memorable Veterans Day, I had the chance to speak with Sgt. Raleigh Heekin, from Denver, Colo., who served in the 9th Infantry Regiment with Sgt. Shaw. The task of escorting the body from Dover, Del. to Buffalo, NY fell heavily on his shoulders.
“It was the hardest thing I have ever done in the Army,” he said. “It is easier to be shot at than to do that.” I was deeply impressed by the calm and serious demeanor of Sgt. Heekin, especially after hearing his combat stories from Iraq. He was seriously wounded when an IED exploded under a jeep he was riding in.
“The percussion was so violent,” he said, “it blew my body armor off and left two of my men dead.” In spite of what he has been through, he admits that he wants to go back.
Sgt. Heekin also proudly wears the crest which I had seen on Sgt. Shaw’s uniform. He explained the meaning of their motto, “Keep up the Fire.” It actually goes all the way back to the Boxer Rebellion of 1899. At that time, Lt. Col. Lipscomb, another member of the 9th Regiment, while fighting in that conflict, was mortally wounded. With his dying breath, he encouraged his men to “Keep up the fire.”
As I watched Sgt. Heekin explain the history of the century-old-motto with such pride, I realized that Sgt. Daniel Shaw did not die in vain. On this Veterans Day, it became very clear that many others have what it takes to “keep up the fire.”