Left: Dr. James Trone, Sr., A&S '50, stands in uniform outside of his home in Bethesda, Md. in 1974.
Right: Dr. James Trone, Sr, A&S '50 (left) and his son James, A&S '81, pose for a photo during the Old Guard Luncheon at Alumni Weekend 2010.
An essay written by George Trone, son of Dr. James Trone.
The Fourth of July is the nation’s day for celebration of its independence and my family's day to celebrate my father. The fireworks, picnics, bunting, and flags speak to all of us. For me, they also speak of my father's birthday. This year, there is a difference. Capt. James N. Trone MC, USN will be at rest in Arlington National Cemetery, all decorated with flags. This Fourth of July those flags wave for all of us but they mean something more for military families of deceased veterans.
For military families, the American flag takes on a special, almost sacred, significance. The military perspective on the flag builds on the popular conception of national unity but it is tinged with a deeper meaning. The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, commonly known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, captures some of this meaning in sculpture form. It depicts five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman heroically raising a flagpole during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Two of the Marines, in fact, were later killed on Iwo Jima. The sculpture, which drew inspiration from an iconic photograph taken at the scene, conveys the powerful sense of determination and self-sacrifice motivating those who enter into harm’s way to protect and serve their country, even if in distant lands far from home.
Beyond the pure symbolism of independence and unity, the flag assumes a sacred significance for those in the military because of this personal aspect of self-sacrifice. Growing up in a military family, I always held reverence for the flag. In middle school, I was chosen to perform flag duty, and I learned the detailed protocol about how to properly care for the flag. At the end of the school day, I would lower and fold it into its familiar triangular shape, avoiding at all costs any contact with the ground. From a young age I appreciated that the flag was almost something holy.
The sacred aspect of the flag took on new meaning last January at my father’s burial. A veteran of World War II, he served 32 years in active and reserve duty as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy. He died last October at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in a full honors interment ceremony. In sub-freezing temperatures, I watched as a naval honor guard performed a ritual deep in symbolism and respect. As anyone who has watched such a ceremony in person or on television, the basic elements were expected: a precision team of pallbearers carried the flag-draped casket; a firing party shot three rifle volleys; a lone bugler played taps; the flag on the casket was folded as I knew from my youth the protocol required; and the flag was presented to my mother by the chaplain who expressed the gratitude of a thankful nation. He then saluted, the honor guard marched off, and the ceremony concluded.
What was totally unexpected, caught me off-guard, and causes an emotional response in me so many months later, however, was how much the flag became a symbol for my father. The flag, which had always represented for me a symbol of my country, transformed itself through the ceremony—I am almost tempted to say through an act of consecration—into a symbol of my father. The pallbearers and chaplain were saluting—but were they saluting the flag or my father, whose rank as Navy captain would require a salute? “Taps” is normally played at sunset when the flag is lowered. Now, as my father’s casket lay on the ground ready for burial, Taps was being played. The song traditionally played for the flag was being played for my father. And the expert care and precision of the pallbearers who folded the flag reminded me of the care with which a sailor would carry the body of an injured or fallen mate. As I witnessed the ceremony, the flag become almost a relic of my father’s life of service.
Perhaps this collision of national and personal symbolism was to be expected after all because my father’s birthday, like our country’s, was July 4. As a family, we had grown accustomed to celebrating his birthday and the country’s birthday together. The joke was that the fireworks were for his birthday. In my eyes, at his death, the nation’s symbol has also become a symbol for him and his memory.
So, on this Fourth of July, which would have been my father’s 88th birthday, I will celebrate with my family with the traditional cookout and celebratory fireworks. I will also proudly fly the flag and remember with a deep gratitude my father and all those whose self-sacrifice is represented by the flag.