One of the most difficult things for an adult to do is bury a parent, but for an Attleboro man, the experience of saying a final goodbye to his father, whose service in the Army included stints in Korea and Vietnam, was both poignant and unforgettable.
That’s because the funeral of Steve Lustig’s father, Jack, was the second of three held on consecutive days in January at Arlington National Cemetery: his father’s good friend and West Point roommate was buried on the day before and his uncle was buried on the following day. Lustig said he attended the services of both his father and his uncle. The three men, two of whom were Jewish and one Catholic, received burials with full military honors and religious rites.
And, while Jewish funerals at Arlington aren’t unusual – more than 2,000 Jewish military service members have been buried there since the Civil War – the circumstances surrounding the burials made Lustig’s experience extremely rare.
Not only did the three men, who died within a month of each other last summer, ask to be buried at Arlington, but the trio – whom Lustig described as “golfing buddies” – were buried in adjoining plots.
The Arlington tributes required patience from the families, as the burials had to wait until they could be scheduled. His father, Jack Lustig, died Aug. 25 at 82; his dad’s roommate, Walter “Walt” Rabe, died July 23 at 83; and his uncle, Shelly Lustig, died Aug. 30 at 86. “All three were victims of diseases associated with Agent Orange,” Lustig said.
“It’s just so unusual that the three were so close in life and all died so close to each other that they landed in the burial queue sequentially,” Lustig, 57, said. “Here are three guys who knew each other very well, but they also got to be buried next to each other,” he said. “Not only did they get buried on consecutive days, but they got assigned consecutive spaces.”
The burial locations were particularly fitting for Jack Lustig and Walt Rabe, who as West Point roommates for 3½ years were always there for each other. “They both had a great sense of humor,” said Lustig’s widow, Phyllis, who lives in Springfield, Virginia.
Steve Lustig said that all three veterans made it clear that they wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Their wishes were finally fulfilled from Jan. 22 to Jan. 24, as follows:
• His father’s roommate and friend, Walt Rabe, a Catholic, was buried Jan. 22. A priest officiated at the service and he received full Catholic rites, according to his widow, Jan, who lives in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Rabe, a colonel in the Air Force, was a fighter pilot from 1967-68, during the Vietnam War, and an Air Force Academy instructor from 1969-72, teaching aeronautical engineering, Jan Rabe said. He also found himself training in Florida during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, his daughter Kimberly Rabe said.
He subsequently worked in Washington, D.C., retiring in 1984. While working in D.C., he was assigned to the Pentagon, where he reunited with his West Point roommate, Phyllis Lustig said.
• Jack Lustig, a lieutenant colonel who served in Korea and in Vietnam, was buried Jan. 23. He graduated from West Point in 1957. He served from 1967-68 in Korea, Steve Lustig said, and he commanded what Lustig described as the largest surface-air missile battalion worldwide. He was also involved with the Pueblo incident in 1968, when North Korea captured the American environmental research ship the USS Pueblo on Jan. 23, 1968. His father later served in Vietnam from 1970-71. His son said his father “found it too painful ever to visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.”
While stationed at the Pentagon, “he was instrumental in the research and development of what is now known as the Patriot missile system,” Lustig said. “He was fortunate to retire from the Army well before 9/11 as his Pentagon office was hit by the plane,” Steve Lustig said.
Rabbi David Kalender of the Lustigs’ hometown conservative synagogue in Fairfax, Va., Temple Olam Tikvah, officiated at the funeral, along with that synagogue’s assistant rabbi, Evan Ravski.
• Lustig’s uncle Shelly was buried Jan. 24 in a service led by a Jewish chaplain. He served in the Air Force in Turkey, Germany, England and Vietnam, and was promoted to brigadier general (1 star) before going to Germany, Lustig said.
“It was a very special relationship,” Jan Rabe said of the two roommates, adding she and Phyllis remain close.
The widows’ friendship is both heartfelt and genuine.
“We put stones on Walt’s (grave), too,” she said, referring to the Jewish graveside custom. And, Phyllis, Shelly’s widow, Marjorie, and Jan honor each other’s religions, Jan said.
“I pray my Catholic prayers over all three, and they pray their Jewish prayers over all three,” Jan said. “We all love each other.”
LARRY KESSLER is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.