The last ride

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Students and staff members at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs line the street as the funeral procession for Maj. Philip Ambard, an academy foreign language professor, passes by. Ambard, a father of five, lost his life while deployed in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Air Force photograph)
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Yesterday started uneventfully, until I learned that the 25th Operational Weather Squadron was gathering to commemorate the sacrifice of Capt. Nathan Nylander, the silver star recipient for which their squadron is named after in memorial.

I called over to the unit and requested to offer a prayer, not as a chaplain, but because Captain Nylander died trying to save the life of my brother-in-law, Maj. Philip Ambard. Offering a brief prayer reminded me of my own journey in saying goodbye to the finest man I have ever had the privilege to know.

Ten years ago, I was entrusted with leading the procession of family, friends, and Airmen to Maj. Philip Ambard’s final resting place. I handed a coin to the driver saying, “You are taking my brother-in-law on his last ride. I don’t want you to forget this.” No one who knew Maj. Philip Ambard will ever forget him. He was born in Venezuela, but loved his adopted country passionately. He joined the U.S. Air Force, quickly moving up the ranks and being selected for senior master sergeant, before being commissioned. Phil had five kids, four of which have served in the active duty military.

Phil was a foreign language professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He deployed to Afghanistan to help train the Afghan Air Force. His life came to an end in Kabul after a lone gunman opened fire, killing nine Airmen. I suppose I had gotten used to deployments. We are a military family with many deployments to the area of responsibility. None of us ever thought we would have to pay such a high price to defend freedom.

I have officiated dozens of funerals as a military chaplain, but I have never seen anything as profound as what took place during the days that followed Phil’s death. His body came into Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., on a Wednesday. Our family was met by the senior leadership of several surrounding military communities. They knew our names and embraced us with tears. I won’t forget the two chaplains who stood beside us as we received his body. Their steadfast presence was calm amidst the storm.

We followed his car in a bus down the two-mile corridor of Peterson AFB and out the front gate. It was lined with hundreds of U.S. and Allied military, civilians and Patriot Guard riders. A rolling salute followed his remains. I remember distinctly the elderly woman with an oxygen tank standing in the cold, hand over heart, giving honor to Phil as he passed by.

The cadets led his remains through an arch of sabers into the hallowed steel cathedral. His five children, my sister and the U.S. Air Force Academy Dean of Students spoke eloquently of his life. The hundreds of mourners and I shared that moment. We felt a connection to his life and to his sacrifice as only military families can in the face of our fallen.

When I lead my family out to the hearse, I remember thinking only of the graveside, but I was not ready for the drive. The driver, still holding tightly to his coin looked at me and said, “We are taking a non-standard route to the cemetery. I hope you don’t mind.”

We pulled out onto the sun draped Terrazzo where students march and travel to and from class, but that day was not a day of coming and going. That day they lined his route. A silent field of blue with proud, slow salutes walked beside us as they said goodbye to their beloved professor. His life and his death would not be forgotten. His lessons will continue.

Ernest Hemmingway said, “Every man has two deaths: when he is buried in the ground and the last time someone says his name.” As we near the end of our nation’s longest war, we have a choice before us. We can assign the long war to our past as something that happened and is forgotten or we can live with purpose honoring those who went before us. Memorials serve not to close the final chapter of a life, but instead to remind us not to let one worth remembering, face a second death.

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