WASHINGTON -- As the roar of four F-22 fighter planes faded and a bugler sounded the final three notes of taps, a red-tailed hawk hovered over the grave of former Sen. Ted Stevens Tuesday afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery.
It was a fitting airborne tribute for the longtime Alaskan, a former pilot whose life and death were shaped by flying and who was buried Tuesday with full military honors.
The ceremony was a final military goodbye for Stevens, who served as a Republican senator from Alaska from 1968 to 2008. He died Aug. 9 at age 86 in a plane crash in Alaska that killed four others.
Stevens was the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history. But long before his 40-year career in the Senate and the high-profile corruption trial that brought his time there to an end, he was a war hero who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a pilot in China during World War II.
The 30-minute ceremony marked that period of his life. It began with the U.S. Air Force Band playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" while an eight-man honor guard escorted a horse-drawn caisson carrying the casket toward the grave site.
Several hundred people filed down the hill behind the flag-draped casket to the grave site, which sits across the river from the Lincoln Memorial. When the leaves fall from the trees in the winter, there will be a clear view of the Capitol to the northeast.
The airmen carried his coffin to the grave site as the band played "Goin' Home." Then, the chaplain of the Senate, the Rev. Barry Black, offered a prayer. Stevens, Black said, "had an amazing flair for the dramatic." His life brought to mind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "Psalm of Life," Black said.
"Great men remind us that we can leave footprints on the sands of time," he said.
When Black concluded his remarks, seven airmen fired three booming rifle volleys. A bugler played taps. Four F-22 Raptors flew overhead in the missing man formation, from the direction of the Pentagon to the southwest. As the jet roar receded, the final three notes of taps lingered. The red-tailed hawk hovered in an updraft over the grave, before gracefully winging away.
Then, the honor guard folded the flag on Stevens' casket as the band played "The Air Force Hymn." Gen. Norton Schwartz, the chief of staff of the Air Force, handed the flag to Stevens' widow, Catherine Stevens. Their daughter, Lily Becker, wept.
The forecast called for torrential rain and flash floods, but it was bright, mostly sunny and 78 degrees. It was the kind of day that Stevens' friends said he would have described as "senator's weather," his term for unexpectedly delightful conditions that defied the forecast.
FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES
The ceremony drew old friends from the Senate, which recessed to allow most senators to attend. Also at the ceremony was Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as well as many of Stevens' former aides and friends.
One of those old friends, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, spoke afterward of his longtime friendship and working relationship with a man he had served beside in Congress for three decades.
Young teared up as one of Stevens' longtime aides, Lisa Sutherland, came up to him and hugged him. Young, whose wife, Lu, died a year ago, told Sutherland he couldn't help but think of her during the ceremony.
"I keep thinking, 'My God, Lu's up there,'" Young said. "God's going to scratch his head and say, 'Holy moly, this has been a tough year.'"
Senators spent much of the day honoring Stevens in the Senate. He devoted his entire adult life to a central mission, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. That mission was working "tirelessly and unapologetically to transform Alaska into a modern state," McConnell said. "He was faithful to that mission to the very end."
"Ted was a legend in his own lifetime," McConnell added. "He lived an incredibly full life. Most of it in service to his nation, and more specifically, to his state. His colleagues in the Senate admired and even sometimes feared him. But Alaskans loved him without any qualification. To them, he was just Uncle Ted, a title that I'm sure will live on."
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Penn., spoke of Stevens' legendary temper and the "Incredible Hulk" tie he would wear when he faced a tough fight. "Behind that tough exterior there was a heart of gold and very emotional man," Specter said. "He didn't lose his temper, he always knew where it was."
Stevens long ago made his mark on Alaska, but it will soon be official. The Senate on Tuesday passed legislation sponsored by Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowksi and Mark Begich that will name a mountain peak in Denali National Park and Preserve for Stevens, as well as part of an icefield in the Chugach Mountains. The peak, to be named Stevens Peak, is commonly known as South Hunter Peak and currently is the tallest unnamed peak in Alaska.