Fringe benefits: Rediscovering the honor of life on the front row

By Austin Jackson | Published Saturday, October 26, 2018

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As the Decatur Police escort lit up its lamps, leading a caravan of family members, Hawkins Funeral home hearses and a pair of scruffy media blokes from Bridgeport to Decatur city limits, Joe Duty, the photographer of note at the Messenger, looked at my grin and nodded.

He stomped on the gas pedal to keep up with the brigade that parted the traffic ahead of us like Moses parted the Red Sea and said, “We get a front row seat to the world.”

In my day-to-day assignments – covering endless fall festivals, city council and school board meetings – it can be easy to forget the special privilege of working for a newspaper.

My understanding of that privilege was not lost Thursday morning as we bore witness to military honor and the power of closure first-hand.

Don’t get me wrong, covering local government is critical and shining a light on community events can be fun. But emotions are seldom stirred, at least not like they were Thursday morning.

It was a special occasion. The remains of James Park, an army soldier who gave his life in World War II and went missing in 1944, were coming home after 74 years.

Park’s daughter Kay Crawford never really knew her father.

She was just a baby when he shipped out to serve in the Company I, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division for the United States Army.

He engaged in one of the longest battles in World War II in the Hurtgen Forest before shrapnel from enemy fire cut his life short, according to the office of Veterans Affairs.

His body stayed in Hurtgen forest until it was laid to rest in a civilian cemetery nearby. A few years later, the body was disinterred and moved to a cemetery in Belgium. That was until 2016, when Crawford submitted a DNA sample to the office of Veterans Affairs.

Crawford grew up with just pictures and memories of her father. Her mother remarried and she came to live a normal life. She stayed close with Park’s parents though, who believed that one day their son would return.

On Thursday, it happened. After 74 years, DNA tests, and several states of exhumation and burial, Park was finally coming home.

To Crawford, the dad, who lived in her head as a mere reflection of the man pictured in uniform around her house and second-hand recollections, became real as she laid her hands on his casket that was lowered from the American Airlines jet and onto the tarmac at DFW Airport.

Crawford’s eyes welled with tears. She was not alone.

“It brings chills,” Brant Hawkins, owner of Hawkins Funeral Homes said as he watched the procession. “74 years and he’s finally home.”

The Honor Team dressed in high visibility vests saluted before unloading the casket, draped with a U.S. flag into the stoic hands of servicemen and women who carried the casket to the hearse.

The moment lasted just minutes, but to see the steps taken by the Veterans Administration to identify and bring back Park’s remains with a full, military style procession, could chisel away at the iciest of hearts.

The man served his country, gave his life, and after 74 years he returned home – a sliver lining to sad story.

As a reporter, the front row to the world can be harsh and cruel. Hours before, I was standing in the rain gathering details on a fatality wreck in Rhome. But on this day, as I watched a daughter discover closure and a soldier return home, I remembered why the front row seat to the world is such a special place to be.

Austin Jackson is a reporter for the Wise County Messenger.

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