Tonight I attended a Dignified Transfer at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. A Dignified Transfer is a ceremony that is conducted on the tarmac of an airfield, during which the bodies of fallen military members (aka Heroes) are transferred from a vehicle onto an aircraft for transport back to the United States. Though I served on active duty and spent time in “hostile territory,” I have never been closer to the truth about the mission of the military, nor the truth about war, than I was tonight. Tonight I witnessed firsthand what it means to serve one’s country.
Oddly, last night I was chatting with a friend online. He asked me if I had been to a building called “The Ark”—a large plywood structure that serves as the camp’s command center. I knew where it was, but had not been there. He said that I would find a Hall of Heroes in The Ark. This is a place where numerous photographs are displayed along the walls and hallways; the photographs depict fallen military members from US and foreign services, as well as civilians serving with the military, who were killed in action. My friend asked me to visit the photograph of one of his fallen Marine brothers. As I stared into the eyes of the young Marine in the photo and touched the frame, I knew that I could not begin to understand the sacrifice that he had made, nor the impact of his sacrifice on his family and friends. Though I am now a civilian, I rendered a hand salute in the silent hall, and I offered the unworthy sentiments that echoed in my heart. It was not the last time I would feel unworthy.
Five of my team members plus a young Marine piled into a vehicle that we affectionately call “HIMAR” and headed for the ceremony. We laughed and joked along the way, like we always do to pass the time, and to help alleviate the weight of living under such unusual circumstances. Oblivious to the deep dark and dusty haze, our minds far from the circumstances ahead, we crawled along at the mandated pace of twenty-four miles per hour, and I watched other vehicles join a procession that wound its way to the flight line.
We pulled to a stop in a parking area near the flight line and hopped out of the vehicle still laughing and joking. As we walked toward the entrance to the tarmac I noted a stillness and silence that lay just ahead of us. The silence descended like night soaking into us with the cold—slowly and deliberately. As we rounded the corner onto the tarmac everything changed. We no longer laughed and joked, rather we accepted the mantle that had descended and fell silent too.
Two long lines of people stretched from the edge of the tarmac to where we entered. Military members from all services and other countries, as well as government civilians and contractors, stood facing one another over a space of about thirty feet. Not a word was spoken, and every person stood with their feet shoulder-width apart, hands behind their backs, as if at the position of parade rest. Heads bobbed this way and that. Some faces held stoic expressions, while others showed curiosity about who was arriving. Some trucks passed through the procession. We shifted to allow more people to join our ranks. And then the lines began move.
People turned toward the tarmac and began to move forward haltingly. As we finally started onto the tarmac the two lines pushed together, and we snaked our way toward a C-130 transport aircraft that waited with the rear cargo hatch open pouring light onto the cold, hard cement. As we arrived we split off into two formations on either side of the cargo door and faced each other again, this time five or six ranks deep. As I looked over the shoulders of those in front of me and into the faces of those opposite our formation I saw expressions harden behind clouds of steamy breath. Every one of us was determined to honor our dead warriors—our heroes—with stoic pride befitting a warrior.
We stood for a long while in the cold. Everybody now stood stiffly at parade rest. Every head faced forward. Every eye looked straight ahead. I was no longer a civilian. I was a part of a military formation. We were rooted together in our cause as the seconds ticked past. The soldier in front of me shivered uncontrollably as he stood coatless, without gloves—his weapon slung over his shoulder. We waited.
A voice growled out, “Dee-tail…Ah-ten-TION!” Both formations snapped to attention in unison. The voice growled out again, “Paaah-rade…REST!” and both formations fell to parade rest with practiced ease. Another voice called out for prayer. Once again, in unison, every head was bowed.
“The Lord is my Sheppard; I shall not want,” the voice began. During the prayer the voice called out the names of the three airmen who had been killed in action:
He did not call them by rank. He did not name their unit. He did not speak of their deeds. He said only their names. They were human beings, like us—it was the only thing that we had left in common with them.
As the prayer ended I looked up. Over the shivering bodies and through the haze of breath I saw cold pale faces with eyes now soft. Each face showed now the compassion and sorrow that hung heavy on hearts beneath. Each body still stood tall and resolute, but the humanity of the moment infused each of our souls, as the cold bit into our fingers and faces. I wiggled my bare digits as I held back a tear that I felt was not mine to shed.
“DEE-TAIL…AH-TEN-TION!” the hardened voice growled out again, and we all snapped too like a massive machine
Ever so slowly the detail of six uniformed men stepped forward in carefully measured steps carrying their precious cargo. I could feel everybody in both formations straining to achieve proud, rigid form. These fallen heroes—these men—would be given every ounce of honor that could be squeezed from sinew and bone. Every thought in every head—every intension in every heart—was concentrated in holy unison on the cold body that passed, prone and flag covered, toward its destination on the plane, as if our united and resolute might could rekindle the warmth in that body.
The soldier in front of me shivered on.
“PREE-SENT…ARMS!” Without thought for my civilian status, my arm rose in defiance of any rules and in unison with every other right arm there. Every arm snapped and then rose slow and steady to the position of a proper hand salute. As the detail passed each row turned slowly toward the plane in order to follow the procession and maintain some sort of contact with the passing hero through the cold, dark night.
The detail reached their destination inside the plane. I tried to imagine this young man’s parents sitting at home only hours after learning of their son’s death. The detail turned and shuffled the casket into position. I attempted to picture the faces of his brothers and sisters as they wept for their lost sibling. The detail lowered the casket into place and stood slowly. I thought of my own children. I thought of the sea of eyes staring back at me in the Hall of Heroes and the young Marine who I passed a message to from his still living marine brother. The detail rendered a painfully slow hand salute. I thought of the cold, still body in the casket, and I wondered who he was. I felt thankful and selfish for the cold air in my lungs and the tingling in my fingers. The detail turned and exited the aircraft.
“ORDER…ARMS!” We dropped our salutes slowly and followed another command to face center. Two more times the detail passed. My mind went numb along with my fingers and face, and I watched the passing each time with sadness. My body lied about the truth of my soul as it followed each command without question. I honored the dead, but I also mourned them. I felt pride and shame all in a single moment.
And then it was over.
We walked back to the car. Some people spoke in hushed tones as we moved across the tarmac. Voices raised in conversation as we left the flight line. Smiles and jokes returned to our mouths as we pulled away in the crowd of vehicles and headed onto the dust choked avenue. Our hearts and minds returned to us as we stepped out of the vehicle and walked back to the warmth of our work centers.
I looked at the young marine who had accompanied us. He had never said a word. I didn’t know his name, where he was from, or even what football team he liked. I wondered where he was going. I wondered what he would do tomorrow. I wondered if he ever went out on patrol. As we passed through the Entry Control Point the Marine walked off in another direction and left my vision—and my mind—like so many Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, and Airman do every day when they leave home behind.
When do we remember them? When should we remember them?
(submitted by Chris Rowley – a resident of South Park in Dayton currently working in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor)