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Eulogy for Jonathan Jacob Winnefeld

Presented November 11, 2017

Good morning everyone.  Heartfelt thanks to all of you for being with us today as we lay our Jonathan to rest.  Special thanks to Vice Pres & Dr Biden, Senator Dole, General and Mrs Dunford, & other senior leaders, along with so many very close friends who have traveled so far or given up so much time to be with us.  Know that your love and outreach has sustained us at a difficult time. 

Reverend Luther Alexander, thank you for blessing yet another Winnefeld event with grace and dignity, and of course, thank you to the Fort Myer and Arlington team. 

We have a tradition in our family when we speak of someone we’ve lost . . . of quoting an old Indian saying that goes “When you were born, you cried and the whole world rejoiced.  So live your life that when you die, you rejoice and the whole world cries.”  Jonathan Jacob Winnefeld . . . our son, brother, nephew, cousin, friend, and teammate . . . is the epitome of that saying. 

Everyone expects to someday lose a parent, but no one is prepared to lose a child . . . someone who is so much a part of you, someone whose diaper you’ve changed, who you’ve taught to ride a bicycle or catch a baseball, or helped with a science project, or who you’ve lovingly watched both fail and succeed in the challenges of growing up.

It is not possible for a parent to lose a child, for any reason, without wondering whether there was something . . . anything . . . one might have done differently along the way to prevent it.  But rather than reflect on the constant background feeling of sorrow that has now entered our lives . . . today I would remember just a few of the many things about you, Jonathan Winnefeld, that made us so proud . . . and that made us smile.  

We rejoiced when you entered our lives at one minute past midnight on the morning after Mother’s Day.  You were baptized at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar, California six months later.  Like plenty of military kids, you grew up with your older brother LJ as your best friend, and you followed him around like a rock star.

I hold your smiles in my memory like the rare gems they were. 

Like the time when you were little, and were invited to play on your brother’s soccer team because they were short one kid, and you were so thrilled to be part of the older guys’ team. 

Or when you showed your brother up by learning to ride a bike on the same day he did.

Or when the two of you did your hilarious magic shows together. 

Or when you struck out some kid who really deserved it, usually on a 3-2 pitch with a logic-defying curveball.

And I can’t forget your smile when you were given your great, great grandfather’s cavalry sword, because it meant you were taken seriously, which is one of the few things you really wanted in life.

You loved playing baseball and, probably more importantly, being accepted as a good teammate.  You had quite a baseball career, playing for the Orioles, Yankees, Braves, Athletics, and Nationals . . . the Bandits, Rebels and Squids . . . several different all-star teams . . . and the W&L High School Generals.

One of you coaches, Adam Balutis, said “This kid's arm was a gift.  I'd guess he hit mid-70s as an 8th grader. Not unheard of, but a gift. He wasn't always able to control his gift, but he knew he had it, and he really did work at it.  Jon didn't really want to jump rope or wrist roll between outings, but then he'd touch off 98 push-ups in two minutes when asked to prove himself.”

And Jonny Boy, you always gave it your best. 

How can we forget your two-out, two strike, tournament winning walk-off single at Disney World when everyone was expecting you to just strike out . . . or your gritty, seven no-hit innings for the Arlington all-star team over back-to-back games on a smoking hot summer afternoon . . .

In a different, colder world, we watched you learn to snowboard . . . always lookin’ good . . . smooth as silk . . . your happy solitude enveloping you as you glided effortlessly down a favorite mountain.

Neither we . . . nor you . . . really understood how very smart you were.  We were amazed by how you could excel at anything you found interesting. 

I would never have guessed you’d get a perfect score on your 5th grade science SOL test, or such a good grade on your AP History test . . . but your mind was a vacuum cleaner . . . including when we had that discussion about compound interest when you were in second grade . . .  The call from your school came a couple of weeks later informing us you’d been nabbed lending your classmates cash, with interest, so they could buy school supplies from you.  It was hard to be mad at you for that.

Even though you rarely laughed out loud, you had a dry sense of humor and a wry smile that revealed that so much more was going on in your mind than anyone really imagined . . . and on those occasions when whatever it was leaked out, it was usually a deadpan, iconoclastic remark that somehow captured the truth.

You were clever in your own right, but that was partly because you were always the underdog, and we loved you for it.  You were unburdened by ego . . . you only resented unfairness . . . and you held an enormous empathy in your heart for animals and other underdogs.  I saw the quiet satisfaction you found when helping lay wreaths right here at Arlington National Cemetery, or helping coach little kids in baseball . . . it revealed a giving nature you so often tried to hide. 

I never once met or heard of anyone who disliked you.  You had no enemies, only friends.  You never talked about any success you achieved; you only said “thank you” when we complimented you. 

Again, your coach: “Jon didn't brag about what he knew or who he knew.  I wish he would have.  I wish he had the confidence to be more comfortable in his skin. I wish he knew what to do with his gifts.” 

Sadly, Jonathan, you suffered demons that none of us could fully comprehend.  On the surface you were the handsome, shy, gentle, affable kid with the warm and disarming demeanor . . . but underneath it all, you were the anxious and depressed child who quietly sought relief, who was just hanging on . . . and who fell into the downward spiral of addiction, with all its sickening complexity.   

You worked so hard over your last 16 months to climb out of the depths of that so-poorly understood disease . . . your progress was heart-warming for your mom and dad to watch.  There is nothing like rooting for your son in something that really matters, and seeing him winning.

We watched with delight as you plunged into your EMT course, working hard to achieve something you knew would help other people.  Your transparent—and uncharacteristic—joy when you gained your final qualification melted our hearts and raised our hopes.

It was encouraging to see your belief that you were finally ready to start college.  Your incoming freshman essay was powerful and meaningful writing that unfurled your true colors.  When I complimented you on it, you wrote back: “That moment on the ride-along stuck out to me so much emotionally and mentally that the words just naturally flowed from my mind without having any doubt about what I was writing.”

You were so handsome and bright eyed and bushy tailed the day you moved into your dorm at the University of Denver.  Your mom and I were the proudest parents on the campus because of what we knew, or thought we knew, you had overcome.  You told me alone, at lunch, that you had it covered if only you could keep your recovery on track.

But . . . to quote a friend, “the miracle of recovery can be undone in a matter of minutes when access is so easy.”

Our beautiful and wonderful and kind Jonathan . . . we so wanted to see you grow into the happy and contributing person we believed you were meant to be, doing all the things you wanted to do.  But as Isaiah says, that was not God’s plan . . . he took you away from the evil to come. 

It is easy for such a tragic and deeply unfair loss as this to cause one to ask “why us” . . . to question God’s love . . . to slip into the belief that Heaven is a little further away from us than we thought.  But we choose to believe Heaven is actually closer to us because you, Jon, the underdog, are now there, resting in God’s warm embrace, and that of your loving grandparents.  

The spark of your life on this earth may be out, but your pain is finally gone and your soul has moved to a much better place.  You are the one rejoicing today . . . because you are free at last.  And we are left yearning for the day when we can think of you and smile rather than cry.

The beginning of my ability to smile will come from not only looking back at your clever and gentle soul . . . but also in remembering that you were an honorable warrior, doing everything you could to defeat the demons of relapse that claimed you.

You wanted to live.  You fought the good fight.  You finished the race.  And although you ultimately lost your battle . . . you will now help win the war.

In your essay you said: “I now live my life with a new-found purpose wanting to help those who cannot help themselves.”  The demons may think they stole that from you . . . but, as another baseball player, Jackie Robinson, once said: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives” . . . and your impact is just beginning. 

George Patton, in whose home on this post you once lived, once told us we should not mourn the loss of men, but rather thank God they lived.  We hope many will live because what you inspired will have made a difference . . . thanks in no small part to the people here with you today.  I can see you now, smiling in your modest way, knowing just that. 

Jonathan . . . we love you and miss you so much . . . but we give thanks to God for the precious time we were together.  And O Lord, we ask that you grant eternal peace unto our Jonathan Jacob Winnefeld, and may your Perpetual Light shine upon him forever.

Sandy Winnefeld

Joshua Lee