This is an article I wrote from Iraq. Seems appropriate for Veteran’s Day…
5 Jul 2007, FOB Kalsu, Iraq — As ceremonies go, it is both simple and profound. Soldiers stand in formation, shoulder to shoulder in several ranks. Arrayed before them are a pair of desert boots and a rifle with bayonet fixed, muzzle towards the earth. An empty helmet is perched on the weapon’s butt-stock, flanked by medals in their cases; a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart — posthumously awarded.
This is my first memorial service for a soldier killed in action (KIA). I earnestly hope it’s my last.
A few days ago, a young Sergeant from the unit I’m attached to here in Iraq was hit in a sudden attack. There was an earth-shaking boom, then a thick column of smoke billowing into the sky. As leaders checked in on the radio to account for their troops, I could hear the tension and barely concealed distress when it became clear there were injuries.
Then, in a wavering voice, came confirmation there’d been a KIA.
Word of who the casualty was spread quickly, and a somber mood descended. Over a dozen soldiers in this brigade have lost their lives since I’ve been here, but those losses were from other units and happened elsewhere. This was close to home. The fallen soldier was popular and widely respected. Nearby, I heard the roommate and longtime friend break down in sobs. It was a long day.
Late that night, the Sergeant began the long journey home surrounded by friends and comrades in arms. As is customary, troops from across the FOB came to line the path of the casket as it was reverently carried out to the aircraft. They call the waiting helicopter the “angel flight”, and the procession is a spontaneous, soldier-level gesture of mourning and solidarity.
The memorial service, held a few days later, is more formalized. By then family members have been notified, the press release has been issued, and the fallen soldier’s buddies, unit members and leaders are able to assemble to pay proper respects. The national anthem is played, with all standing at attention and saluting the Stars and Stripes. The chaplain gives a prayer, followed by comments from the unit commander.
One of the soldier’s closest friends comes to the podium, and this proves to be the most difficult part of the ceremony for me. The Sergeant’s character, dedication, courage and strong moral values become obvious from the friend’s heartfelt remarks. Awestruck thoughts flood my mind. Where do we get such amazing young people? How can we be worthy of them? What is the debt we owe because of their sacrifices?
The Chaplain again stands to give a scriptural meditation, with words of remembrance for the dead, comfort for the living and supplication to the Divine. The benediction is given, the honor guard fires the traditional three volleys and the sad, sweet bugle notes of “taps” fill the evening air.
Finally the unit members file by the boots-and-rifle memorial, where each stops to give a slow, deliberate salute. Then they kneel, or step forward, to gently touch a boot or put a hand on the helmet. Many also place a small token or memento by the boots. With chagrin, I realize I have nothing appropriate to offer.
But then it’s my turn. I march slowly up to the upended rifle, lean forward to touch the helmet with care while saying a silent prayer. God speed to you, Sergeant. I stand smartly at attention, raise my arm and rigid hand in a slow arc to touch the bill of my hat. And God bless you and your family, Sergeant Trista Leah Moretti.
See more Letters from the Sandbox…