'One of the Greatest of the Greatest Generation': A Final Farewell to Bob Dole

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Military pallbearers bring Bob Dole's casket into the Kansas Statehouse rotunda for a memorial service, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley served as the personal escort Friday for former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, D-N.C., as she followed her husband's flag-draped casket into Washington's National Cathedral for the funeral of a son of the prairie, World War II veteran, senator, statesman and patriot.

In a sign of the military's pride in, and respect for, former Army 2nd Lt. Robert J. Dole of Russell, Kansas, Milley, the nation's highest-ranking officer, took over the escort duties that traditionally go to a ceremonial officer of lesser rank and assisted Elizabeth Dole as she struggled slightly in ascending the cathedral steps.

As members from all the services bore the casket to its place before the altar, the choir sang "The Wayfaring Stranger," the timeless folk song that depicts life as way-stop on the journey to the everlasting: "So I'm just going over Jordan, I'm just going over home."

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The Rev. Randolph Hollerith, dean of the cathedral, opened the service by noting that he had presided only five weeks earlier at the funeral of another Army veteran who came from humble beginnings in the Bronx -- former Joint Chiefs Chairman and Secretary of State Colin Powell. "We have indeed seen too much loss in recent days," he said.

Hollerith told the mourners, including former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Mike Pence and actor Tom Hanks, that Dole was "one of the greatest of the 'Greatest Generation'" and cited a biblical verse from Matthew 25 in summing up his life and career: "Well done, good and faithful servant, well done."

In his eulogy for Dole, who died in his sleep Dec. 5 at age 98, President Joe Biden recalled his Senate colleague of 25 years as a "genuine hero" and fierce partisan who also sought consensus on major issues such as voting and civil rights, food programs and the effort with the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., to shore up the Social Security system in the 1980s.

"God, what courage Bob Dole had," Biden said, noting Dole's battle back from numerous surgeries following the grievous wounds he suffered in Italy during World War II.

He also recalled Dole's biting wit, once used to explain to his Republican colleagues why he voted against their move to defund Amtrak -- which Biden took home to Delaware every night. Biden said Dole told the GOP loyalists, "It was the only way to get Joe Biden the hell outta here at night."

Dole's legacy could be summed up with what he told a reporter his agenda would be when he first was elected to the House in 1960, Biden said.

"I'm going to sit and watch for a couple of days, and then I'm going to stand up and do what's right," Dole said.

"Now it's our job to start standing up for what's right," Biden said.

In her remarks at the funeral, Dole's daughter Robin also recalled her father's sense of humor in quoting from his last letter, written to a former staffer, on how he pictured the afterlife.

"I'm a bit curious to learn if I am correct in thinking that heaven will look a lot like Kansas," Dole wrote, adding that "I wonder if I will still be able to vote in Chicago."

Milley again escorted Elizabeth Dole behind the casket as the funeral ended and then went with her to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall for a ceremony honoring her husband, who was instrumental in securing approval for construction as head of the foundation that built the memorial.

Dole "did all but mix the concrete himself," Hanks told the small crowd,, and recalled how the former senator spent many a weekend in retirement greeting honor flights of veterans who came to visit the memorial.

Dole lost the use of his right arm in battle, but he "came to this plaza often to remember, to talk with veterans like himself and to their posterity, by greeting them with a shake to his left hand," Hanks said.

In his remarks, Milley went into the grim details of Dole's last battle as a 21-year-old lieutenant leading 2nd Platoon, India Company, 85th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, near the town of Castel d'Aiano in Italy's Apennine Mountains southwest of Bologna.

Their mission on Feb. 14, 1945, was to attack German positions on Hill 913. "They attacked without hesitation, led by Lt. Dole." In the course of that attack, "the world exploded around Lt. Dole," Milley said.

His radioman was mortally wounded and, as he sought to drag him to cover, machine gun bullets tore through Dole's back, leaving him unable to move his arms and legs. Others in the platoon managed to drag him to relative cover behind a stone wall, but he lay there for nearly 10 hours before medics could reach him, "not knowing whether he would live or die," Milley said.

Before finally securing Hill 913, the 10th Mountain would sustain 460 casualties, including 98 killed in action, Milley said.

"He left the battlefield in Italy, and his war was over but his fight was just beginning," he added, referring to the full body cast Dole endured for nearly a year, along with seven surgeries. "He suffered and endured and showed us all what hope can do.

"So why, why did Bob Dole do it? Why did Bob Dole raise his right hand in 1942 and swear allegiance to the United States of America? He did it for an idea, an idea that is America," Milley said. "He fought and lived for that idea.

"He served the Army, he served the state of Kansas, he served his political party but, above all, he served his country, he served his fellow Americans," Milley said. "Bob Dole always, always, put his country first."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related: Dole: 'Genuine Hero' Paid War's Price, Triumphed in Senate

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