Editor's note: Army Lt. Matt Spartz, a lifelong Lombard resident, was deployed to Afghanistan in May with the 101st Airborne Division. A 2008 journalism graduate of University of Illinois, he is submitting occasional reports for the Daily Herald.
When I was a boy, I loved watching my grandpa, John Spartz, lead his VFW post during the Memorial Day parade in near-West suburban Berkeley.
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World War II was more than half a century over, yet his Navy uniform was as crisp as it was in the faded sepia photo of his graduation from explosive ordnance disposal training.
I remember how proud he was a few years before his stroke when my dad's boyhood friend, the mayor of Berkeley, presented him with the war medals he never received due to lost paperwork.
Grandpa Spartz led his final service parade on Tuesday. He passed away at the age of 91. And more than 60 years since his service, he was still given military burial honors.
It is a cold, necessary reality that the Army can grant leaves of absence for soldiers only when immediate family members, or their childhood primary care givers, pass away. Missing the last moments and burials of beloved family is yet another sacrifice thousands of service members choose to endure while serving away from home.
I've experienced the memorial services in Afghanistan of my fellow brothers-in-arms. Through the grace of modern technology I was able to experience the final prayers for the most influential service member of my life.
I called my mom, Nancy, on her cell phone just before my grandpa's funeral. She clandestinely slid the phone into my brother Eric's coat pocket as he helped carry grandpa's flag-draped casket to St. Domitilla Church and then to his burial plot. Mom said I was a pallbearer in spirit.
Then at grandpa's final resting place, the phone was next to my grandmother, Rosemary, as the Navy honor guard played taps and presented her with grandpa's flag.
That was too much. I could see in my mind the fresh inches of snow that had blanketed Chicago the night before, and the red, white and blue flower arrangement my family put on display for me. The trumpet sliced through the cold air, over thousands of digital miles, and to my ear while I sat on a hard folding chair in an unusually quiet command center.
I could hear grandma's voice as she accepted the flag, and tears welled in my eyes.
Their story bleeds true Americana. Grandpa was the son of Luxembourg immigrants. Grandma was raised in an orphanage. They eventually adopted two of their own, raising a total of five Baby Boomers.
Grandpa toiled for 40 years at tool and die manufacturing. Grandma started Berkeley's first girls softball league. Grandpa was always the stoical family patriarch who knew the American dream was working hard every day to provide a better life for his family.
He had said a few years ago that no one should cry at his funeral because he had led such a good life. But I know we don't cry solely for sorrow; it will be hard coming home and simply not seeing him anymore.
I had hoped he would make one more year, enough time for me to come home and see him one last time. But in a sense it's fitting. Grandpa made sure he saw me off to serve our nation in another time of need.
He led that parade for so long. Next year, it's my turn.