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Saying ‘thank you’ to someone who’s gone

Faith & Inspiration

I needed to be in Washington, D.C., by 10:15 a.m. to make the interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. My flight left in plenty of time from just 500 miles away.

I never made it. Mechanical problems, engine trouble—you know the drill. The joys of air travel never cease.

Capt. Charles Herbert Kinney was to be buried, and his family would be there. Herb was my commanding officer in Vietnam. I knew him as “Skipper.” We risked our lives, side by side, more than 250 times during the summer of 1972. Facing death together in a cockpit draws men together. It lets you know their makeup, and reveals the man without any masks. I wanted to tell the family face-to-face what Herb meant to me. I did not get that chance.

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Six hours later, back at home, having failed at this crucial mission, frustration set in.

How do you say “thank you” to someone who’s gone? How do you adequately express appreciation for life lessons given to you by someone you cared about deeply? How do you express that these lessons have served me well? Can you assume Herb’s loved ones knew the positive influence he had on me? Do they understand he poured his life into me, and I am eternally grateful?

We learn in leadership that physical presence shouts loudly, with no words. How do you express the same pathos in words? How do you express love, admiration, and, most of all, respect, when you can’t be there? I wish I knew.

You see, I never looked the Skipper in the eye and said, “Thank you for all you gave me.”

He is the one who taught me, “There is no such thing as ‘good writing,’ only ‘good re-writing.’” He taught me to establish good patterns of habit, never take shortcuts, and always tell the truth, even if it meant trouble. He saw every enlisted man and admiral as human beings, not just ranks in an organization, and he treated them with the same respect and dignity. His exterior was tough and hard, but beneath the CO exterior was compassion and empathy. I missed my chance to encourage with my appreciation.

I did the best I could in my apologies to the family, in a brief letter and by phone. But somehow it all seemed a bit hollow and empty. I learned how precious these opportunities to say thanks are, and I asked God to help me be diligent in seeking them out and completing them while I can.

As I prayed, I thought about the nine lepers who were healed and went away without a word of thanks. I was counting myself among them. Then I remembered, the Lord sees all, and knows all. He saw what Herb did for me and much more. God will count it all to Herb’s account. When we cannot be there, we can know that God is always there, and His presence and His knowing is more critical than ours.

Bill Newton
Bill Newton

Bill is a pastor based in Asheville, N.C. He also serves as a member of God World Publications' board of directors.

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