Honoring Veterans Day with first burial at sea aboard USS Gerald R. Ford

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Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) participate in a burial at sea ceremony on the ship’s aircraft elevator three. Thirty souls were laid to rest during the first burial at sea ceremony held aboard Ford. (Navy photograph by SA Zack Guth)

Veterans Day, an annual day of commemoration that honors all military members, was observed with a unique and special ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), laying veterans to rest in the deep blue sea.

The cremains of 29 service members from four different branches of service and one Merchant Marine were laid in the sea during a burial at sea ceremony aboard Ford Nov. 11. Though the time honored tradition of a burial at sea has been in practice for as long as mankind has sailed the seas, this ceremony marked the first for the USS Gerald R. Ford and her crew.

The burial at sea ceremony connects us to the rest of the fleet and it also connects to our traditions, our pasts, and those who were also connected to the sea,” said Cmdr. Dave Kim, from Mineola, New York, a Ford chaplain. “It was a great experience throughout the whole ship to get involved with this experience.”

The ceremony was led by Ford’s Chaplain, Cmdr. Michael Amedick, from Pennsauken, N.J., who was honored to carry out this request for so many veterans.

“There was a lot of service among them across a lot of eras; it’s just nice to be able to honor that service in a fitting way, and even more special to be able to do it on Veterans Day,” said Amedick. “All of them served, we’re just trying to honor their desire [to be committed to the sea] in a way that is fitting for what they did.”

Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Kevin Colston, from Detroit, assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department, participates in the honor guard during a burial at sea ceremony on the ship’s aircraft elevator three. Thirty souls were laid to rest during the first burial at sea ceremony held aboard Ford. (Navy photograph by PO3 Connor Loessin)

Surviving family members of the deceased receive the American flag that was carried with their remains, three spent cartridges which represents each of the volleys fired by the firing detail’s 21-gun salute, an official certificate showing the charted coordinates of where their loved ones were laid to rest, photos from the event and a personal letter from the USS Gerald R. Ford’s Commanding Officer, Capt. John J. Cummings.

“Because the family members aren’t able to attend the burial at sea in person, they will be really happy to see the pictures and everything we’ve done to make it more meaningful to them,” said Amedick.

The crewmembers aboard Ford —many of which have never experienced a burial at sea ceremony — were eager to participate or attend and honor the service members.

“It was really cool how the crew was really involved, it’s kind of CRMD [command religious ministries department] leading it, but I think there was about a dozen different departments involved in one way or another,” said Amedick. “A lot of volunteers were really eager to serve in either the honor platoon, as an urn bearer, or the firing detail who all really did a great job honoring the people who we were committing, so I’m proud to just be a part of that.”

Sailors stood in formation on USS Gerald R. Ford’s aircraft elevator 3 in their dress blue uniforms, gathered to honor their service to our nation.  At 9 a.m., the command was announced, “all hands bury the dead.” After a prayer from Amedick, the ceremony proceeded. Urn bearers carried the cremains to the catafalque one-by-one as Amedick read their names and background aloud. Salutes were rendered as they were then released to their final resting place.

A 21-gun salute shot toward the horizon. Gunshots faded with every echo as the empty shells bounced onto the deck. “Taps” sounded from a lone bugle over the silent participants and attendees.

Most of them were Sailors including two couples buried together. A few were Soldiers or Marines; one was a Merchant Mariner. Some of them served for decades, served only for a few years, but all of them served. Now they are committed to rest in the mighty blue sea.

Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Robert Ashman, from Virginia Beach, Va., assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department, bows his head for a prayer during a burial at sea ceremony on the ship’s aircraft elevator three. Thirty souls were laid to rest during the first burial at sea ceremony held aboard Ford. (Navy photograph by SA Angel Thuy Jaskuloski)

Fourth generation Ford sailor buries 2nd family member at sea
For Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Robert Ashman, from Virginia Beach, Va., assigned to Ford’s weapons department, wearing his service dress blue uniform had an added significance on this particular day.

As Sailors reflected on and honored the lives of the brave men and women who have served before us, Ashman payed special respects to Chief Hull Maintenance Technician Dean Curtis Ashman, his grandfather, who was laid to rest during the first burial at sea ceremony aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford.

“I lived with ‘Pop’, in Virginia Beach until around age 18. After he served in the Navy, he started working with wood in the garage making various things,” said Ashman, a fourth generation Sailor. “After I joined the Navy, when I came home to visit I was greeted as a brother and not just a grandson. We would spend time together in his shop. We would talk about what it would be like when I went underway.”

According to his obituary, Ashman’s grandfather passed away Dec. 23, 2016. He retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer and went to college at Old Dominion University where he became an educator. He then had a second career as a teacher at Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, Va., for 20 years.

“Unfortunately, since his passing, he didn’t get to see me go on deployment last year. He won’t get to see my pictures and hear my stories, but I know that he was there with me,” said Ashman.

This is the second time that Ashman has buried a family member at sea; the first was by pure coincidence. In 2018, while temporarily assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81) from the USS Gerald R. Ford, Ashman was asked to participate in his first burial-at-sea ceremony. After reading the name, “Chief Signalman James Mitchell,” he later confirmed those to be the remains of his great-grandfather.

“It was a huge coincidence that I ended up going on deployment on the same ship that was carrying his remains, and in a way felt like it was meant to be,” said Ashman.

Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Robert Ashman, from Virginia Beach, Virginia, assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department, carries his grandfather’s, Chief Hull Maintenance Technician Dean Curtis Ashman, urn during a burial at sea ceremony on the ship’s aircraft elevator three. Thirty souls were laid to rest during the first burial at sea ceremony held aboard Ford. (Navy photograph by PO3 Connor Loessin)

“With my grandfather, it has been a long time coming until Ford left the shipyard and we could give him a proper burial-at-sea.”

Ashman said that being able to do this burial at sea, for a second time, will bring more respect to his family and means even more that it’s on Veterans Day.

“I feel like he’s always with me, like with my great-grandfather, up above watching what I’m doing,” said Ashman. “Where I’m from, they say that cardinals are loved ones that come back to watch over you and every time I visit home, there is always a cardinal out back somewhere. I’ve got two very large pairs of boots to fill and I’m doing my best every day to fulfill that responsibility.”

The USS Gerald R. Ford is a first-in-class aircraft carrier and the first new aircraft carrier designed in more than 40 years. Ford is currently underway conducting testing in the Atlantic Ocean.