As a military chaplain, Iím often invited to pray or speak in Veterans Day festivities. I attend few observances, however, that show the unselfish service of the veteran better than a military retirement service. In honor of nearly 2 million military retirees in this country, I offer this Veterans Day column as a way of giving you a glimpse into the military retirement ceremony.

While the order of service varies between branches, and even between bases, I always begin the event with a prayer I wrote from the faith tradition of the one retiring. Sometimes the prayer is simply a poem or nonreligious wisdom, but I present it as a way of honoring his service, not mine.

Immediately after my prayer, the emcee (usually a junior officer) calls all military members to attention and reads a copy of the retirement orders. The commander takes her turn when she presents the retiree with the medals he has earned during his last closing years of service. She also reads a thank-you letter from the president of the United States.

Then in what might sound like a eulogy, the commander gives a speech highlighting the retireeís career. Afterward, the honoree comes to the podium, where he tearfully presents a bouquet of flowers to his spouse and family. He attempts to follow that act with a flowery speech of his own, but I must tell you that few retirees hold it together during this emotional oratory.

If dry eyes remain, the honor guard often will change that when the ceremonial unit of four volunteers unfurls a folded flag. The unit leader barks staccato orders intelligible only to a team that reacts like crisp marionettes strung by a masterís hand.

In a few minutes, they stretch the flag across the podium for inspection. Once the color guard commander approves the flag, they refold it.

The sergeant gives the flag to the commander, who presents a wrinkle-free flag to the new retiree. His acceptance cues me back to the podium for the invocation. Afterward, a round of hardy handshaking usually dries the tears while I find a place in the front of the cake line.

During the last ceremony I attended, I couldnít help but realize that I am in the zone for retirement with more than 26 years of combined service on active duty and in the Reserve or Air National Guard. When I hinted to my schoolteacher wife, Becky, that she might want to think about planning my retirement party, she reminded me that she, too, is approaching that day.

All of this has me thinking about placing a pithy little bumper sticker on our car. Usually, Iím not fond of such stickers, most especially the idea that English is the only language of freedom, but I canít help but admire this one: If you can read this ... thank a teacher. If you can read this in English ... thank a veteran.

Good marital compromise, donít you think?

Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of No Small Miracles. He also serves as an Air National Guard chaplain and is board-certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains. Email or visit