Burying Maj. Thomas Reitmann
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 9, 2011 5:22 PM
News-Argus Video Report
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Carol Sumner vowed to stay strong -- to ensure that the day of her husband's funeral was spent celebrating his life, not mourning his death.
The truth is, she has already played the role of a grieving widow -- for the years between the moment she was told her first love was shot out of the skies over Vietnam until the last American POWs came home and he wasn't among them; when she looked into the eyes of four children and told them that their father -- their hero -- had been lost at war.
So as family members and old friends filed into a room on the top floor of a Virginia hotel Thursday morning, Carol greeted each with a smile and warm embrace.
"Today is going to be a celebration," she said, looking back at a collage of black and white photographs of a love taken from her far too soon. "There's no room for sadness here."
And as those men, women and children boarded a bus bound for Arlington National Cemetery, she extended, to each, a coin.
"Throw a nickel on the grass," she quipped. "Save a fighter pilot's ass."
But Carol was not the only one who had waited more than 45 years to see Maj. Thomas Reitmann buried among his nation's most beloved heroes.
And for the fallen pilot's children, Thursday brought with it much different emotions.
The couple's daughters, Kim Lorigan and Karen Mutobe, found it impossible, on several occasions, to hold back tears.
And when an Air Force general handed the major's namesake and his brother, Michael, folded flags at their father's graveside, each needed a deep breath to collect themselves.
Carol must have sensed that even after all these years, it would become necessary for her to resume the role of stoic head of household she was thrust into the day a group of military officers approached her car in a parking lot on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
So when the children, at times, fell behind the small group that walked behind a horse-drawn caisson for more than two miles -- from the Old Post Chapel to their father's plot -- the 74-year-old, using a cane, kept the pace.
She didn't even accept a folded flag or shadow box.
Closure, on this day, was reserved for the four who were too young, back in 1965, to fully understand the sacrifice they had just made for their country.
Carol alluded to it several weeks ago when she talked about what it meant to learn that, after more than four decades, Tom's remains had been unearthed on a piece of farmland in Vietnam.
"I am of the belief that this is God's world, and it doesn't really matter where we die and are buried, because our soul gets to heaven," she said then. "So I never worried that he didn't come home, because I knew he wasn't (in Vietnam). He was with God. And that has always been fine with me. It's given me peace.
"But at the same time, it's nice, especially for the children, that he can be in a place they can go and honor him."
Tom's journey to Arlington was an unlikely one.
In fact, only a few months after his F-105 Thunderchief was shot down during a bombing mission, Carol accepted that she would never, in body, be in the presence of her love again.
Tom's comrades from the 334th Fighter Squadron had returned from their tour.
And then the major's wingman played her the cockpit recording from Dec. 1, 1965.
"They were yelling to him, 'Eject. Eject. Eject,'" Carol said.
And he told her how he followed Tom's jet down to 2,000 feet -- that it hit the ground and he didn't see a parachute.
"He said, 'You know, I just don't think he made it. I really don't see how he could have gotten out,'" Carol said.
And when, years later, the last American POWs returned from Vietnam, she embarked on a journey no mother ever anticipates -- creating, for her children, her husband's legacy -- and moving on.
She had no idea that decades later, thanks to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command -- a group that brings together anthropologists, photographers, linguists and other specialists for the purpose of ensuring all those left behind during war come home -- she would, in a way, be reunited with the man she fell for in "a real whirlwind."
A few months ago, her eldest daughter's phone rang.
"He says that he's with Mortuary Affairs with the Air Force. You hear those words together and the brain starts to click immediately," Kim said several weeks ago. "Then he said ... 'I've spoken with your Uncle Ed and I've spoken with your mother.' The minute he said that, it was just like, I just knew."
Tom's remains, using a DNA sample his brother reluctantly provided to the military, had been identified.
He was coming home.
Most of those who came together inside the Old Post Chapel -- and later, at the place Tom's remains will forever rest -- got caught up in the emotion.
Karen, who was only a few months old when her father was shot down, only made it through a few words of Scripture before choking up.
Tears filled Kim's eyes as she read "High Flight," a poem often associated with the loss of an aviator.
The airman's great-grandchildren jumped when the 21-gun salute rang out across the nation's most hallowed grounds.
Men who served and flew alongside Tom shed tears as they saluted their friend's flag-draped coffin.
Even the priest who was handpicked by the family -- the 90-year-old who knew Tom long before he left for Vietnam -- found himself, at times, at a loss for words.
But the Rev. Fidelis Connolly was quick to remind those faces in the crowd that Tom believed in eternal life -- that his faith was among the things that drove him to fight for his country in the first place.
So the pilot, in his own mind, could have never really been lost.
"You have always been with us," Connolly said, moments after he stepped down from the pulpit and stood beside the coffin. "So while we grieve, we are also grateful that now, your human existence will be brought to a fitting conclusion. Now, you can be at peace in eternity."