Washington Gets Chance to Say Goodbye to Stevens

Photos and Story by Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska’s longtime senator Ted Stevens was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday near the nation’s capital. The former Republican senator died on August 9 in a plane crash in western Alaska. A memorial in Anchorage last month honored his life, but Tuesday’s burial ceremony was a chance for Washington, where he served for forty years, to pay respects.

The day started overcast, but by the time Ted Stevens’ family arrived at Arlington National Cemetery, it had turned mild and sunny, to “Senator’s weather.” That’s what Stevens and his staff called a good change in the weather – when they’d journey to a rural Alaska village and worry about conditions, staffers say usually Senator’s weather would prevail. It did on Tuesday.

The Air Force Band played the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a procession started to the grave site.

A horse-drawn carriage, or caisson carried Stevens’ body.

Following behind the caisson was the Stevens family –wife Catherine, children and grandchildren. Some of his grandsons wore bright green Incredible Hulk ties – just like Stevens once did on the floor of the Senate. Hundreds of mourners filled in around the grave site – including dozens of Senators, with whom Stevens served for forty years –longer than any other Republican.

As an honor guard carried the casket the final steps to the grave, the Band played “Goin Home.”

Stevens served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, which entitled him to full military honors.

The Chaplain of the Senate, Reverend Barry Black, offered a prayer, and called Stevens a “force of nature” with an amazing flair for the dramatic. He quoted the poet Longfellow’s “Song of Life” – that great men leave footprints on the sands of time.

“He left the exemplary footprint of passion for country. I’ve met a lot of people since coming to Capitol Hill,” Black said. “I’ve not met anyone who loved his country more than Ted Stevens.”

“And I know I’ve met no one who loved Alaska more than Ted Stevens, who was one of her founding forebears.”

After the service, Reverend Black said as Senate Chaplain, he had a personal connection to Stevens.

“He was a gentleman who had a tremendous sense of humor, and because of the similarity of our military backgrounds, he always had a way of getting me to laugh,” Black said. “And inevitably he would leave me with a smile on my face, and I had the privilege of seeing him every morning, because he was the President Pro Tempore, who would open the Senate with prayer.”

“So he was an amazing man, and an individual who left exemplary footprints on the sands of time.”

As part of the military honors, Airmen fired off a trio of rifle volleys.

Four F-22 raptors also flew overhead as a bugler performed Taps.

The Honor Guard folded the American flag from Stevens’ casket, and the Band played the Air Force Hymn. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz presented the flag to widow Catherine Stevens.

Overhead two hawks circled in the sky and landed in a nearby tree. Family friend from Fairbanks, David Monson, says it was a perfect symbol for the man who loved to fly:

“Then they came back again and flew across the whole thing there,” Monson said. “It was like the Missing Man formation. They flew across the trees, and then disappeared into Arlington.”

“It was incredible. It was incredible, everybody was moved.”

As the crowds lingered among the rows of headstones, Alaska Congressman Don Young recalled his years serving along side Ted Stevens.

“I’m gonna miss my good friend, I got to be with the family during the service which was nice, Ben and Walter and their wives and kids,” Young said. “They’re going to miss him. For the kids especially it’s a trying time. Alaska’s gonna miss him. In retrospect though, he lived a great life.”

Stevens was also remembered Tuesday at a public event at the Kennedy Center. In the Senate chambers, his colleagues shared their own Ted Stevens stories, including top Republican Mitch McConnell, who butted heads with the Alaskan, but says in the end, admired him:

“He lived an incredibly fully life. Most of it in service to his nation and more specifically to his state,” McConnell said. “His colleagues in the Senate admired and sometimes feared him, but Alaskans loved him without any qualification.”

“To them he was just Uncle Ted. A title I’m sure will live on.”

As the crowds left Arlington National Cemetery, the body of Ted Stevens awaited final internment in the hilly, quiet spot. From the site you can see Washington, across the Potomac River. When the leaves fall off the trees soon, you’ll be able to glimpse the U.S. Capitol from Ted Stevens’ final resting place.

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