CANTON, Illinois — After thanking a man for his kind words, Dave Riney stood with his hands at his side in expectation that another would soon approach.
Dave had been shaking hands and receiving hugs and thanking people for their compassion since the funeral began at 11 a.m. on Monday, through the procession in this small town that involved dozens of fire trucks and hundreds of motorcycle riders, and at the gravesite where those hundreds and at least a hundred more watched the service.
Dave Riney has been doing all of this since the moment his son landed at the nearby National Guard base, his body in a coffin that was draped with the flag.
Now, Dave can finally sit down.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “There’s just no other way to put it.”
Dave was not talking about the death of his son, Douglas Riney, 26, who along with a civilian Army employee was murdered by a gunman in an Afghan army uniform in Kabul on Oct. 19. No, Dave is overwhelmed because of the groundswell of support that has taken some of the load off the Rineys as they unexpectedly dealt with the worst homecoming a military family can experience.
“I just can’t express how amazing it’s been,” he said.
Riney and Michael Sauro were at an ammunition supply depot when the gunman opened fire, killing them and wounding three others. The Department of Defense has not said who the gunman was, just that he was taken down by someone after he killed Riney and Sauro.
Whoever he is, his act of violence reminds us that the second-longest war in our nation’s history is in danger of becoming a forgotten one. Afghanistan was referenced once in three presidential debates—and it’s unlikely that will change in the next seven days. (The same goes for Kenya, where a U.S. special forces soldier was killed just two days before Riney died. The United States has hundreds of troops working with local forces there and in Somalia.) ISIS gets our attention now, and the Mosul offensive that has also cost at least one American life. The fact that the Taliban has taken back 85 percent of Helmand Province—territory paid for with nearly 1,000 American lives—does not.
Riney and Sauro are the fifth and sixth Americans to die in Afghanistan this year. Two soldiers have died in combat in 2016, one has died outside of battle, and two more have died while searching for or dismantling improvised explosive devices, according to the Department of Defense.
Riney left behind a wife and two children, a mother, a step-mother, a niece, and his father.
“His niece’s school kids wrote letters for him,” remarks Kay, who helped to set up lunch at the church where Dave finished out his long, sad day.
A boy named Logan drew a Purple Heart and told the Riney family that Doug deserved the honor.
“We all appreciate what he did,” the boy wrote. “He sacrificed his life for our country.”
That sacrifice is why so many showed showed up on Friday, to escort Riney’s body from the base. A parade of fire trucks (Riney was a volunteer firemen), and people lining the streets to watch it go by.
What is understood here is that no matter the reason for the war, sacrifices that are made in the name of it should be honored. Jim Watts learned that when he said he was spit on in 1963 while walking through O’Hare International Airport in 1963. His crime was wearing Army green.
“Shit, that stuff happened all the time back then,” a friend, Nick, huffed. Nick certified Riney for scuba diving so the soldier could be on his local fire department’s dive team. Watts’s son, a police officer at Western Illinois University, taught Riney when he took a criminal investigations class there.
Both men are members of the American Legion, a veterans group that is fading here in Illinois as men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan find families and work, and little time to volunteer for the organization.
“I worked 16 hours a day for 40 years,” said Larry Ginglen, a member of American Legion Post 138 out of Havana, Illinois. Like Jim Watts, Nick and Ginglen’s companion from havana, Dan Gunter, Ginglen volunteered to attend Riney’s funeral on Monday, just as he did for 29 military funerals last year. Watts’s Canton American Legion post worked 52 of them.
“I understand that people are busy when they come back,” Ginglen said of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. “But the problem is that you still have an obligation to this country.”
Unfortunately, funerals are often the place where the Legion comes into contact with many young veterans.
They’re having a difficult time attracting those younger veterans, each of the men said in one form or another.
So they do what they can. They host barbeques to keep the lights on at the Legion hall. Some halls operate bars to bring in extra cash. They organize for military funerals—in Riney’s case bringing in a band teacher and Guard reservist from the Chicago suburbs to play taps—and line up other Legionnaires to hold flags at gravesites.
Each funeral takes 18 to 20 of them, Ginglen said, a taxing effort for the 72 members of his post in Havana.
Some of them introduced themselves to Dave. Others just didn’t have the time. With the amount of people who have said variations of “I’m sorry for your loss” to the grieving father in recent days, it’s hard to tell if he’ll remember all of the men who volunteered to give his son a final salute on a windy day with the leaves beginning to crack and fall to the ground. But they’ll remember him, and they’ll be here for the next one, whether we remember or not.
“That’s just what we do,” Ginglen said.