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In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
-- JULIE WARD HOWE, THE LAST VERSE OF "THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC"
Music has an enormous influence on our memories. On one early morning, I was on the way to work when music reminded me of a good friend. The first light of day had just peeked across the east horizon -- the sky was still dark blue. Seventy-five degrees. Beautiful. I put the windows down and felt the cool morning wind off Lake Michigan. The radio station was playing Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone."
Tuesday's gone with the wind
But somehow I've got to carry on.
A few years ago, during a night much like that morning -- 75 degrees, the dusk sky purple and pink and blue, a cool breeze off Lake Michigan -- my friend Cooter and I were in a beer garden watching a live band. Cooter was from East Kentucky and was visiting me in Chicago.
Cooter and I met about eight or nine years back. I was an officer and he wasn't. We shared some common hardships that would make us an oddball pair of friends. We became brothers.
So he came to Chicago not too long ago.
We were laughing over many beers when the band started playing "Tuesday's Gone."
Cooter, already well on his way to a hangover, jumped up on the picnic table and started singing along.
He yelled down at me, "Git up here, man!"
I jumped up on the table and noticed the crowd looking our way. I can't sing worth a damn and neither can Cooter. But that wouldn't stop us -- one arm around the other's shoulders with the other extended, holding a plastic cup of beer sloshing all over the place -- drunk and screeching at the top of our lungs.
Tuesday's gone with the wind
But somehow I've got to carry on.
And then I was back in the car and thinking of Coot and hearing that song and thinking of that night and thinking of his wife and wondering how she's doing and that I should call her.
That was the last time I saw Coot. He was killed in Afghanistan.
I remember that my eyes were a bit wet and the guy in the Lexus next to me had to be wondering, What's up with the guy in the Ford, singing loudly and out of tune?
Tuesday's gone with the wind
But somehow I've got to carry on.
As with music, there are other things that trigger our memories of loved ones lost in battle, or maybe they are signs. Heidi Sims blogs at Learning to Live, where she recounts her life before and after her husband, Captain Sean Sims, was killed in Fallujah, Iraq. Just a few days after learning of her husband's fate, Heidi runs across an article about Sean written by Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder:
Today I was in the grocery store and could not help but think about signs from Sean. While in the grocery store, I was helping my grandmother find foods for her diabetic diet . . . we spent a lot of time on the "health" food aisle, which I am learning is not that healthy! So we are reading labels (seemed like all of them) when something caught my eye so I turned around. In the middle of the sugar-free cookies was a four-pack of Guinness cans . . . if you knew Sean you know how much he loved his Guinness beer. No matter where we traveled we always had to find an Irish pub so he could have a brew while I sipped tea.
I long for him to send me more signs. I must admit that I was never a believer before November 13, but that night changed my mind. I can't help but remember the letter I sent to my family and friends a few days after my world changed. It was the first sign Sean sent me so I am going to share a part of it. I am truly a believer and waiting for more.
Dear Family and Friends,
I just wanted to drop a quick (well, it did not turn out to be too quick) email to let you know how things are going in Germany. My parents arrived today so a big load was lifted off my shoulders. The days are still long and the nights short, but I am doing pretty good I think.
My friend, the "wife," has been staying with me 24 hours a day. We were talking at 4 this morning about signs from loved ones that have died. I told her that I just wish Sean would send me a sign to know that he is ok, and he was thinking of me. Today, I searched to see if there was a news article maybe giving some insight to what happened. I found two news articles . . . one contained very painful information especially from a soldier in his company and a quote that he made about the cause of Sean's death but I found the article below and in my mind I got a sign. Let me explain and then you can read the article.
A few weeks ago, Sean had asked me if there was anything that I might want from Iraq . . . he sent a few rugs but most of you know that I have an obsession with blue and white teapots. I told him to send me a blue and white teapot if possible or just a metal teapot. He said he would see what he could do. I don't think he ever had the time but as I read the article my sign appeared. It might seem odd to some of you but it was a great feeling, and I have had a happy afternoon thinking about it and how much I love Sean and miss him tremendously!
Thanks for you prayers and support! I truly love all of you and know that I will get through this with all of your support! Enjoy the article. There is one sentence that is a little graphic.
AMBUSH STEALS LIFE OF TEXAS SOLDIER
By Tom Lasseter
Knight Ridder News Service
FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Capt. Sean Sims was up early Saturday, looking at maps of Fallujah and thinking of the day's battle. His fingers, dirty and cracked, traced a route that snaked down the city's southern corridor. "We've killed a lot of bad guys," he said. "But there's always going to be some guys left. They'll hide out and snipe at us for two months. I hope we've gotten the organized resistance." Sims, a 32-year-old Texan from Eddy, commanded his Alpha Company without raising his voice. His men liked and respected him. When he noticed that one of his soldiers, 22-year-old Arthur Wright, wasn't getting care packages from home, Sims arranged for his wife, a schoolteacher, to have her students send cards and presents. Sitting in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle pocked by shrapnel from five days of heavy fighting, Sims figured he and his men, of the 1st Infantry Division's Task Force 2-2, had maybe three or four days left before returning to base. They were in southwest Fallujah, where pockets of hardcore gunmen were still shooting from houses connected by labyrinths of covered trench lines and low rooftops. A CNN crew came by, and Sims' men led them around the ruins, showing them the bombed-out buildings and bodies of insurgents that had been gnawed on by neighborhood dogs and cats. The father of an infant son, Sims was still trying to get over the death of his company's executive officer, Lt. Edward Iwan, a 28-year-old from Albion, Neb., who'd been shot through the torso the night before. "It's tough. I don't know what to think about it yet," he said slowly, searching for words. Shaking off the thought, he threw on his gear and went looking for houses to clear. A group of rebels was waiting. They'd been sleeping for days on dirty mats and blankets, eating green peppers and dates from plastic tubs. When Sims and his men came through the front door, gunfire erupted. Two soldiers were hit. Crouching by a wall outside, Sgt. Randy Laird screamed into his radio, "Negative, I cannot move, we're pinned down right now! We have friendlies down! Friendlies down!" The 24-year-old from Lake Charles, La., crouched down on a knee, sweating and waiting for help. A line of troops ran up, taking cover from the bullets. They shot their way into the house. Sims lay on a kitchen floor, his blood pouring across dirty tile. An empty teapot sat on nearby concrete stairs. A valentine heart, drawn in red with an arrow through it, was on the cabinet. There was no life in his eyes. "He's down," Staff Sgt. Thorsten Lamm, 37, said in the heavy accent of his native Germany. "Shut the [expletive] up about him being dead," Sgt. Joseph Alvey, 23, of Enid, OK, yelled back. "Just shut the [expletive] up." The men sprinted to a rubble-strewn house to get a medic. The company's Iraqi translator, who goes by Sami, was waiting. "Is he in there? Is he there?" he asked. He tried running out the door, his AK-47 ready. As men held him back, he fell against a wall, crying into his hands. When the troops rushed back, they lifted Sims' body onto a pile of blankets and carried it to the closest Bradley. Six soldiers and a reporter piled in after, trying not to step on the body. In Baghdad, Qasim Daoud, interim minister of state for national security, had announced that Fallujah was under control. Back in Fallujah, a 2,000-pound bomb fell from the sky amid a storm of 155 mm artillery shells. A mosque lost half a minaret; its main building smoldered. In the back of the Bradley with Sims' body, no one spoke. The only sound was Wright sobbing in the darkness.
©2004 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
I often read the long version of this article and find the end results so hard to believe. He was so close to making it to the end. I struggle with this daily but am proud of what he did. Someday it will be a better place . . . I long to go find that house.
I finally got up the nerve to email this reporter to ask some questions. Apparently someone had already shared my email with him. I really appreciated that he took the time to answer all my questions. A few weeks after we traded emails, I got a box at the post office. I opened it and the tears began to fall. Mr. Lasseter sent me that blue and white teapot . . . I look at it every day. I wonder if he knows how much I appreciated it?
Marine Major Brian Kennedy is a Cobra Attack Helicopter pilot. Flying an armored and armed swift Cobra, he frequently pulled missions to protect slower and thin-skinned medical evacuation helicopters. His blog, Howdy, named for his call-sign, recounts his experiences in Iraq:
The bell rang. More like a garbage can lid being hit with a 2 by 4.
"Howdy, you got a mission!" yells the Battle Captain.
I sprint out the door and join the foot race of medical CH-46E Chinook helicopter pilots, crew chiefs, medical corpsmen, doctors and Cobra crews running to their helicopters.
Throw on your body armor, dive in, yell "CLEAR!" and crank it up. Get to 100% rotor RPM, arm up the missiles, rockets and 20mm cannon.
There is an urgent Casualty Evacution (CASEVAC) in Ramadi. Time is crucial. The doctor and corpsman are on the CH-46. My Cobra is there to protect them so they can do their job.
We launch and "floor it" heading towards Ramadi. We are going as fast as we can get the aircraft to go.
Eight miles out from Ramadi we get a call on the radio that our mission is canceled.
An urgent CASEVAC got canceled, meaning the individual that was supposed to get picked up lost their fight for life.
Turn around, land, de-arm, shut down, refuel, re-cock the aircraft, lay out your gear again just like a firefighter would and walk back to the ready room.
I don't know you or your name, but may God bless you and keep you.
Naval Reserve Lieutenant Scott Koenig wrote about his friend and college roommate, Kylan Jones-Huffman, on his blog Citizen Smash -- the Indepundit:
Kylan didn't quite fit in at Annapolis. He was a nerdy kid from Aptos, a small town in California near Santa Cruz. While most of us were concentrating on manly studies like sciences and engineering, he was more interested in art, poetry, history, and foreign languages.
Kylan had an intellectual curiosity that bordered on true geekdom, and most of his classmates found his fascination in Nazi Germany a little bit creepy (I later learned that his interest in the Nazis was purely academic -- Kylan's personal political views were somewhat to the left of most Annapolis midshipmen).
You don't get to pick your roommates during Plebe Summer, and I got stuck with Kylan and some football player, who would quit after a few weeks. But Kylan didn't drop out. Even in the darkest days of that first summer, the thought never seemed to cross his mind.
When we were juniors, Kylan introduced me to a girl from Mary Washington College in Virginia, whom I would date for several months. That relationship didn't work out, although it was through that girl that I met the Most Beautiful Woman on Earth, who would eventually become Mrs. Smash. (Hey, it was college!) Anyhow, Kylan is indirectly responsible for much of the happiness in my life, and for that he has my eternal gratitude.
Kylan's major field of study was history, and he was quite a gifted student. He enrolled in the honors history program, and had earned several credits towards his way to a Master's Degree in History by the time we graduated. After graduation, I went off to Newport, Rhode Island, for Surface Warfare Officers School, and Kylan went to the University of Maryland to finish up his Master's.
I didn't see him again until the following February, when he turned up in Newport to start the course just as I was finishing. In the interim, he had married Heidi, his high school sweetheart, and I had gotten engaged to the aforementioned Most Beautiful Woman on Earth. His bride had remained behind to finish school in California, so he stayed in my apartment for a couple of days while he was looking for his own place. A couple of weeks later, he returned the favor by allowing me to stay at his pad for a few days after my lease had run out -- I only had a few days left in the course.
We had fun those last few days together, helping prop up the fragile winter economy of Newport by visiting the various drinking establishments that dot the waterfront. When I left for San Diego, and my first ship, at the end of February, we of course promised to keep in touch. But of course we didn't.
A couple of weeks ago, the selection message for Lieutenant Commander came out, and I spotted Kylan's name on it. "I wonder what he's up to these days," I thought.
Turns out that Kylan has been busy these many years. Always gifted at languages, he had learned to speak German, French, Arabic, and Farsi, the predominant language of Iran. This aptitude for languages had earned him a job with Naval Intelligence.
Kylan had returned to Annapolis to teach history for a couple of years, and had plans to earn a Doctorate in Turkish Studies at Johns Hopkins University. But before he could get started, his reserve unit got called up and he was sent to the Sandbox.
I never realized he was there.
On August 21, two days before I boarded my flight home from Kuwait, Lieutenant Kylan Jones-Huffman was shot and killed while riding in an SUV near the town of Al Hillah. His unit was stationed in Bahrain, and he was only supposed to visit Iraq for one week.
Rest in peace, shipmate.
Major Brian Delaplane blogs from Afghanistan, where he is an executive officer (second in command) of a battalion. His blog is Fire Power Forward, and he had the sad duty of escorting the remains of Special Operations soldiers and Navy SEALs to Germany on their way home to the States:
I found myself sitting in one of the canvas seats that lined the side of the C-17. Thirteen other people sat to my left and right and thirteen others sat in the seats on the other side facing us. Uncharacteristic of a flight headed out of a combat theater, there was no laughing or joking. All the normal yelling and good-natured taunts were replaced with a stoic silence as we gazed at the two rows of caskets between us, each meticulously covered with an American flag. The plane leveled out, and some began to shift in their seats to get comfortable for the long ride. One of the two Slovakian soldiers on the other side stared at the casket nearest him with an expression that was not irreverent but seemed to indicate that he couldn't comprehend something. Straight across from me, a young Sergeant wearing a Special Forces patch on his right sleeve sat ramrod straight gazing at the casket nearest him. We would accompany these warriors for the next seven and a half hours, the first leg of their final journey. We would each come to terms with it in our own way and wonder what it was that put us on this aircraft at this time.
I thought about how this had started just a few days ago. It was a Thursday. I had been assigned a mission of an administrative nature that not only promised to be tedious, distasteful, and time consuming, it would carry the added benefit of being my primary mission until completed. I waded in, and by the weekend I was so thoroughly immersed in this newly assigned duty that I barely took notice of the LTF commander's absence as he circulated the area of operations to see our soldiers in remote locations. I should have seen the omen. It seems that each time LTC Langowski departs, catastrophes emerge and crises erupt. The first time he left Salerno back in March, rockets rained down in the worst attack in over a year, and while the details escape me, the tradition has faithfully continued upon each of his departures. This time would be no different.
On Tuesday, as the commander was making his way to FOB Ripley in the south, and I was deluged with paperwork, LT Mahoney put his head in my office and asked, "Sir, are you aware of the Chinook that's down?"
What had been my primary duty seemingly evaporated.
"Precautionary landing?" I asked, hoping that a prudent aviator had sensed something amiss with the aircraft and chose to land, a fairly frequent and not very serious occurrence.
"No Sir, it was shot down near Asadabad. They're not sure how many are on board but we think there are at least 2 survivors."
My mind was whirling with questions. How do we know it was shot down? Where exactly was it? Can MEDEVAC land there? But the first one out of my mouth as we walked back into our operations center was "Do we have anyone flying today?"
LT Mahoney was answering me, but I wasn't paying attention. The question had been unnecessary. The screen was showing that it was an MH-47 that had been lost, a Special Ops version of the Chinook, and it was logically being reported by CJSOTF, the Combined Joint Special Operation Task Force. We wouldn't have had anyone on this aircraft. The initial sense of relief quickly dissipated, though. There were still troops on the ground out there, possibly badly injured and still in harm's way.
I read through the reports. Not much was known and I chose not to frustrate myself by staring at an immobile screen.
"Make sure that all our people are accounted for just in case," I told LT Mahoney as I began to leave, "and make sure that Mortuary Affairs is aware."
The Mortuary Affairs detachment, which has the sad and gruesome task of attending to the bodies of those lost here, recently was realigned to fall under the control of our task force. I sincerely hoped that they would be the only unit in the task force that never had to do their job.
As the day wore on, I repeatedly made my way back into the TOC to see any updates, but little changed. It was quickly verified that it was a Special Ops flight and that all our people were indeed accounted for, but the number of people on board ranged from 14 to 22 and the number of survivors was unknown. It normally takes a bit of time to piece all the details together from an incident like this but the information was painstakingly slow this time.
By nightfall, what we did know was that a formation of Apaches, Blackhawks, and Chinooks was traveling up a mountain valley north of Asadabad near the Pakistan border. As they approached their landing zone, the smaller Blackhawks slowed to allow the Chinooks to move ahead. A Blackhawk Crew Chief looking from his side window as the ill-fated Chinook moved ahead saw the smoke trail of an RPG from the trees below, then the explosion as the round hit the rear of the Chinook. Reports varied on whether the Chinook hit the trees wheels first or inverted, but it was very clear that it had then rolled to the bottom of the ravine. There were secondary explosions and there was fire. What we also knew by the time we went to bed that night was that there was no way to land an aircraft at the crash site, and we obviously knew that there were bad guys in the area. The terrain was brutal and inaccessible by vehicle. Help would have to come by foot from Asadabad. It would be a long time coming, and the question was how to protect the crash site until that help arrived without endangering more aircraft. These were special ops guys on the ground and they would have their own unique solutions to these problems, but all of them would take time.
What followed was waiting, no answers, and more waiting. By morning nothing new had developed. Predators had flown over the area all night and Apaches had over-watched from the ridgelines above, but news was maddeningly scarce and hope dimmed with each passing hour. The day crept by, and as it passed, the only thing we really became sure of was that there had been 16 people, SEALs and Task Force 160th Aviators, on board the Chinook.
By Thursday, word finally came from forces that had reached the aircraft that there were no survivors. The LTF Commander had also returned from his trek by this time, and I informed him that it was becoming increasingly clear that the mission I had been assigned was going to require me to return to Germany for a few days.
On Friday, the Mortuary Affairs unit was unfortunately employed and I was at the air terminal trying to figure out the best way to get to Germany. I had finally produced all the required paperwork and signed up for what I thought was the most expeditious route to Germany through Kuwait, when an announcement was made that a flight directly to Ramstein with seats available had just been scheduled. The delight over my good fortune of a flight directly to my destination was quickly tempered when I heard the PA announcement that the fallen comrade ramp ceremony was scheduled a half-hour before my flight was due to leave. It was going to be a somber ride.
At 9:00 P.M., for the fourth time since our return to Bagram, I found myself standing on the flightline as part of a long solemn line rendering respect as Humvees carrying our fallen comrades slowly rolled towards the mammoth aircraft. For three of these four times, it had been the CJSOTF colors that marched alongside our national colors leading these men who had made the ultimate sacrifice towards the beginning of their final journey. Only bits and pieces of the bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" caught my ear over the wind before the rear doors of the C-17 clanged shut and the color guard made their way back into the darkness of the flightline.
A half-hour later, I was being led across the flightline with a group of 20 or so others towards the same C-17. As our group rounded the rear of the aircraft, en route to the side passenger door, we saw that there was still a large contingent of CJSOTF personnel milling about. Our Air Force escort asked us to stand fast and she disappeared into the aircraft.
From time to time CJSOTF people would disembark the aircraft alone, or in pairs, after having said their final farewells to their comrades, and walk somberly back to the group of people huddled in the dark. I was feeling like a plumber or mailman who had arrived at a house during a wake; decorum seemed to dictate that I divert my attention from the scene but it was impossible not to be drawn back to it.
Two people standing alone but very near me watched the procession, unmoving and in silence for the nearly 20 minutes I stood on that ramp. Instinctively, I knew that it was the CJSOTF commander and his Sergeant Major, and when our escort thankfully turned us around to return to the terminal for a few minutes, this instinct was confirmed when I caught a glimpse of their name tags and ranks.
Thinking back, I'm not sure why I did it or if I would do it again, but I was surprised to see my hand tugging at the commander's sleeve. When he turned to face me I saw the trails of tears glistening on his cheeks, and I could say only "Sir, I'm sorry for your loss." Words failed him but were unnecessary as he reached out and squeezed my shoulder before I started my walk back to the terminal. What I did know at this time was that this man had completed his tour and was scheduled to hand over his command. This couldn't have come at a worse time for him personally, but what I didn't know then was that the reason those aircraft had flown up that valley to start with was to search for four other SEALs who had gone missing. Though I'm not sure why I tugged at this man's sleeve, I knew that as I made the walk back to the terminal, I no longer felt like an intruder but rather a person who was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to express my condolences when it mattered most.
The lights illuminated in the cabin, stirring me from my slumber, and the crew chief announced that we would be landing at Ramstein in about 20 minutes. After zipping up my bag and tightening my seat belt I looked across the cabin to see the soldier with the Special Forces patch still sitting ramrod straight gazing at the two rows of flag-covered caskets, giving every indication that he hadn't moved for the past seven and a half hours.
When the door finally opened and I made my way to the front of the aircraft, I noticed something different about the last casket I would pass. There was something on the flag. Thinking that something had fallen from a rucksack on the way out the door, I reached to remove it before I saw that it was a dogtag with an inscription. I touched it briefly, then continued out the door, and standing on the ramp with the cool, early morning German rain streaming down my face I considered the inscription I had just read:
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said "Here am I! Send me!" -- Isaiah 6:8
Coalition soldiers are not the only ones fighting and dying for a free Iraq. Iraqis are also making the ultimate sacrifice for their country. There are many military blog posts about the familial relationship that Americans have with their interpreters and Iraqi Army and Police counterparts. First Sergeant Patrick Cosgrove, the top noncommissioned officer in his artillery battery, blogs at Six More Months and writes about his Iraqi interpreter, Nabeel:
Because the core of my job is controlling access to the camp, I have met thousands of Iraqis over the past 9 months. Many I speak to for a moment, just to determine what their business is and to make a quick decision about one-time access, most for about 10 minutes to interview them prior to granting them longer-term access. The Iraqis I know best are the interpreters, my own and those who work for other units here on the camp. They are wonderful people, with a diversity of backgrounds, education, and personalities. What they have in common is the ability to pass an English proficiency test and the guts to work side by side with U.S Troops, inside and outside the wire. As I have mentioned before, the job is incredibly dangerous.
When I first arrived here and began learning the ropes at the gate, the first Iraqis I came to know were our gate interpreters. Interpreters are mostly known by nicknames, for their own protection and for ease of pronunciation by Americans. We have a really hard time getting our tongues around Arabic names. They have nicknames like Doc, Navigator, Bulldog, Cowboy, and Caesar. Some speak what I call "Hollywood English," which they clearly learned watching American movies and TV, filled with slang and expressions they may or may not fully understand. These interpreters are always entertaining, not always for the reasons they think they are, and are very easy to get along with. New interpreters often speak very limited, literal English with little understanding of the subtleties of the language. Once they have spent some time around Americans, they grow into effective and trusted interpreters. Some, like Neo, speak fluent and proper English, sometimes better than the Soldiers they are interpreting for.
I met Neo the same day I met Fox and Junior, "my" interpreters. Neo, before he transferred to another job, worked the gate with about 12 other interpreters, and we considered him one of the best: intelligent, eloquent, and principled. He owned a jewelry business in Baghdad before the war and my predecessors introduced us quickly, advising me to talk to Neo before buying any jewelry, because he had the best quality at the most reasonable prices. After about a month, Neo left the gate to work at the base contracting office. This was the perfect match for him. His business experience and knowledge of the Baghdad economy allowed the contracting office to drive the hardest bargains and find the best suppliers. It also allowed him to get a little less face time in front of the other Iraqi workers, which he hoped would reduce the risk associated with working here and the constant threats he received. Neo moved his family four times since I arrived here to protect them from those threats.
I found out this afternoon that two days ago, Neo was driving to work when his car was stopped by terrorists. They pulled him from his car and shot him in the back of the head. They left his body lying in the ditch alongside the road. Neo's real name was Nabeel. Nabeel lived his life with more courage and honor than the cowards who murdered him will know in a thousand lifetimes.
Many times, fate or chance decides who lives and who dies in a war zone. Private First Class Trueman Muhrer-Irwin writes on Rebel Coyote about what happened on the day he switched places with his best friend, Specialist Robert Wise.
"Hey, would you mind riding in the turret today? I'm still feeling like shit."
"Yeah, no problem."
We were on our way to pick up a few things from our compound; if we were gonna spend the rest of the week at 1st AD [Armored Division] brigade HQ, we sure as hell were gonna have all our stuff. We were just gonna make a quick stop at the barracks then head over to Gunner Main where there was supposed to be some work for the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) guys we were escorting around.
As we were coming up towards River Road, I looked out at the street behind us pulling security from behind the .50 cal. I'd walked this road a hundred times so when it hit me, I couldn't understand what we could have driven under, what could have struck me so hard.
It took almost a full second to realize what had happened.
The smoke was all around us and there was no sound but the dull ringing in my head. All I could smell was the blood. I was doubled over the side of the turret and as I stared out into the gray haze that surrounded us, the fear and pain hit me like a second explosion. With each breath I screamed, the shrapnel inside me seared my muscles and my foot throbbed with pain. My tears were lost in the blood that poured down my face and clouded my vision. As I began to feel frantically around my throat for wounds, the voice of the vehicle's driver, platoon medic Matt Moss, pierced the silence.
"Get away from the vehicle!" he screamed. "Get away from the vehicle."
He was right, the gas tanks could go or someone could be waiting with an RPG for the haze to clear. I pulled myself out of the turret and rolled down onto the Humvee's hood. I could see out of my right eye now and the only thing I could still feel was the crushing pain in my left foot. While I lowered myself to the ground, onto my good foot, I looked through the missing windshield and saw Wise, still motionless in the passenger seat. His head was tilted back and his face was covered in blood.
"Oh no, Wise!" I shouted, as Matt ran to the side of the vehicle.
"Help me move him," he shouted. "Come on, help me get Wise!" His voice was edged with panic but he moved with the steady deliberation of a man concerned only with his duty.
"I can't," I yelled through a mouthful of blood, "I think my foot's broken." But it didn't matter, the guys from the other humvee had already run back to our vehicle. They helped Matt pull Wise out and lower him to the ground.
As I hopped off to the side of the road and sat down, I realized that my foot was not only broken but pouring a steady stream of blood from the left side. Through gritted teeth and shouts of pain I unlaced my boot and pulled it off. The smell of burnt flesh hit me instantly as I looked down at my foot. The left side of my sock was entirely soaked and dripping with blood but the right side was a large charred patch of indistinguishable skin, sock and shrapnel.
"I'm going to lose my foot," I thought between shouts of anger and pain. "I'm never going to skate again."
"Come on Wise, breathe!" Matt's voice broke through my self-absorbed agony. "Goddamnit, breathe, you're not going to die here!"
How could I be so obsessed with my own pain? I shouldn't be worried about my foot while one of my best friends is dying a few feet away from me . . . But it hurt so bad.
"Oh God, Wise, Ahhhh, my foot," I yelled and craned my neck to try and see them working on Wise behind me but I could only see his feet for all the people around him.
Now the QRF [Quick Reaction Force] was starting to arrive from the compound. They secured the area and, after about ten agonizing minutes of pain and uncertainty, Wise and I were loaded onto a Blackhawk and evac'd to the hospital at the palace. They'd gotten him breathing again, they said he was gonna be okay.
At the hospital they gave me morphine. It didn't do much for the pain, but Wise was gonna be okay and once the doctor pulled the piece of shrapnel out, he said I wasn't gonna lose my foot. I was in a good mood. Maybe it was just the drugs but I knew I was gonna be okay and I was in good spirits. The doctors put me under for surgery. They cleaned out my wound and cut away the dead, burned tissue. When I woke up, I didn't feel any pain. A general came and saw me and gave me a 1st Armored Division coin. I was gonna be back in the States in a week, and I found out that the guy I'd spent the last 9 months getting to know better than almost anyone else, Robert Allen Wise, died of massive head trauma while I was in surgery.
He'll be buried at Arlington National Cemetery next week.
Lance Corporal Eric Freeman completed two combat tours in Iraq. He left letters behind to be opened in the event of his death. He was killed in an automobile accident on his way to report for a third tour in Iraq. His last letter, to be read only if he died, was published on Blackfive:
I'm sorry that I couldn't make it home to you and I'm sorry it took me so long to realize how great my family is. But enough of that. The best thing that anyone of you could do to honor me is not to pity any of us but rather remember the good times we shared. To remember all the goofy, fun and loving times we had will be what lets my life have value. I will not stand for sad faces every time I'm mentioned (I will haunt you meanly for that, LOL). But in all seriousness, celebrate my life and the love we had. Okay, everyone, I'm going to go now but remember that you all gave my life purpose and happiness and that is what I wish to give you.
Eric's letter to Tiara, his fiance;e:
Heyya Hun. If you're getting this letter it's because I'm not coming home to you. Take heart though, Love, and please do not pity us. Be happy that we had the time we had and know that I died loving you. When you think of me don't think of what could have been but smile for me and remember the good times we had. I don't want you to be sad when you think of me, I want you to tell everyone about how much we loved each other and about how we laughed together. I did not live a life to be mourned, I lived it to make the people I love happy. I want you to know how wonderful you are, Tiara. You know, you made everything worth it. You were the most loving, supportive and amazing person for me. Only you could have made my heart sing the way you did. Okay, love, I'm gunna go now. I want only three things of you: Celebrate my life and our love, don't let the end of my life end yours, and remember that I love you still and nothing can take that away from us.
Sometimes, how we deal with the death of a loved one defines us more than how we live our lives. Heather McCrae writes of Erik, her husband, who died in Iraq, and how she now proposes to live her life. Her Toast to Life was published on CaliValleyGirl:
A lot has been going on in my life during the past two and a half months. The month of May felt like the world was coming to an end due to the endless memorial services and the inevitable approach of the one year of Erik's death. It was far worse than the previous 11 months. No longer numb, no longer in shock, I had to face this milestone sober, and the pain at times felt unbearable. And as some of you have come to learn, I had to do it my way, a.k.a. alone.
One week later, I was sitting in a motorcycle course learning how to ride. Amazingly enough, I passed, which meant I received my motorcycle endorsement and am legal to ride on the roadways. Though I am far from confident enough to do so. I spent the following week looking at bikes and decided in the end to have Erik's 1200 Sportster altered to fit my significantly shorter body. Learning how to ride just felt like something I needed to do to help me in my grieving, and I was right. For the first time in a year I was excited about something and even felt a twinge of accomplishment.
The last week of June I went to Delta Company's first drill since they have returned. I had not seen any of the men since I was hiding in Europe when they returned and so I was extremely nervous. Nervous for what, I am not sure. Perhaps it was the finality of it all. If they were back and Erik wasn't, then the nightmare was confirmed. Instead of it being scary it was a relief to see them and gave me a peace I had yet to experience. Two wise men (they would be patting themselves on the back right now if they were to read this) said something to me that weekend that planted a seed. They mentioned that though Erik's death is a part of my life it does not define it. I'm sure some of you have said this in those exact words or slight variations, but I was not ready at the time. And quite honestly, I believe only a soldier who was there with Erik could have said it in a way that could penetrate my thick Scottish skull.
That one comment made me start thinking about my life. I realized that a year has gone by and I had nothing to show for it except an indentation in my couch and an increasingly "grumpy" disposition. It was now up to me to decide what to do with my life. I could either sit and continue to be a cranky old lady and allow Erik's death to define me, or I could get up, start living life, and allow Erik's death to be a part of who I am. With memories of my Great Grandma Carlson coming to mind -- my hero -- I chose the latter.
Though some of you might think this was the "only" choice or the "easiest" choice, you couldn't be further from the truth on either account. It is not the only choice. I have examples in my life of family members who chose the first route. And as far as it being the easy one -- wow. Being grumpy and sticking to yourself means you don't have to be around happy couples and families with kids. Choosing to live means choosing to be around those very things that make me the saddest, because those are the things I was supposed to have with Erik. And more than anything, choosing to live means learning how to love again. I don't just mean another man but love in general. Love has not been something I have been capable of feeling or accepting over the last year. True I may have said it to family members, but I never really meant it. To love means you put your whole self out there, you are vulnerable to pain and loss, and over the last year I was diligently working on building a wall to protect me from that kind of pain and loss again. But as I told Erik in Scotland as he grappled with the idea of giving me the boot as he prepared himself for the inevitable deployment, God said it best, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." -- 1 Corinthians 13:13.
So here I go in the only way I know how to do things -- 100%. I'm ready to live and love again. Please do not misinterpret this as Oh good, Heather is finally "moving on." "Moving on" indicates leaving behind, forgetting and going on to something better. I am not, as most say, moving on, I am instead continuing to play the game just like you do after you are sent to jail in Monopoly, or sent home in Sorry or rolling the dice again after sliding down a slide in Chutes and Ladders. You start out at a new position impacted by the previous play but still in the game.
So here is a toast to life. May we all have a summer filled with laughter and love to get us through those trials that we cannot avoid. One last thing before I go: I owe you all a great thank you for putting up with the cranky me.
Below is "Taking Chance," the powerful account of U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, who escorted the remains of a Marine, Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, home to Wyoming. Phelps was killed in action from a gunshot wound received on April 9, 2004, during combat operations west of Baghdad. He was buried in Dubois, Wyoming, on April 17, 2004. "Taking Chance" was published on Blackfive:
Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn't know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him.
Over a year ago, I volunteered to escort the remains of Marines killed in Iraq should the need arise. The military provides a uniformed escort for all casualties to ensure they are delivered safely to the next of kin and are treated with dignity and respect along the way.
Thankfully, I hadn't been called on to be an escort since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. The first few weeks of April, however, had been a tough month for the Marines. On the Monday after Easter I was reviewing Department of Defense press releases when I saw that a Private First Class Chance Phelps was killed in action outside of Baghdad. The press release listed his hometown -- the same town I'm from. I notified our Battalion adjutant and told him that, should the duty to escort PFC Phelps fall to our Battalion, I would take him.
I didn't hear back the rest of Monday and all day Tuesday until 1800. The Battalion duty NCO called my cell phone and said I needed to be ready to leave for Dover Air Force Base at 1900 in order to escort the remains of PFC Phelps.
Before leaving for Dover I called the major who had the task of informing Phelps's parents of his death. The major said the funeral was going to be in Dubois, Wyoming. (It turned out that PFC Phelps only lived in my hometown for his senior year of high school.) I had never been to Wyoming and had never heard of Dubois.
With two other escorts from Quantico, I got to Dover AFB at 2330 on Tuesday night. First thing on Wednesday we reported to the mortuary at the base. In the escort lounge there were about half a dozen Army soldiers and about an equal number of Marines waiting to meet up with "their" remains for departure. PFC Phelps was not ready, however, and I was told to come back on Thursday. Now, at Dover with nothing to do and a solemn mission ahead, I began to get depressed.
I was wondering about Chance Phelps. I didn't know anything about him, not even what he looked like. I wondered about his family and what it would be like to meet them. I did pushups in my room until I couldn't do any more.
On Thursday morning I reported back to the mortuary. This time there was a new group of Army escorts and a couple of the Marines who had been there Wednesday. There was also an Air Force captain there to escort his brother home to San Diego.
We received a brief covering our duties, the proper handling of the remains, the procedures for draping a flag over a casket, and of course, the paperwork attendant to our task. We were shown pictures of the shipping container and told that each one contained, in addition to the casket, a flag. I was given an extra flag since Phelps's parents were divorced. This way they would each get one. I didn't like the idea of stuffing the flag into my luggage but I couldn't see carrying a large flag, folded for presentation to the next of kin, through an airport while in my Alpha uniform. It barely fit into my suitcase.
It turned out that I was the last escort to leave on Thursday. This meant that I repeatedly got to participate in the small ceremonies that mark all departures from the Dover AFB mortuary.
Most of the remains are taken from Dover Air Force Base by hearse to the airport in Philadelphia for air transport to their final destination. When the remains of a service member are loaded onto a hearse and ready to leave the Dover mortuary, there is an announcement made over the building's intercom system. With the announcement, all service members working at the mortuary, regardless of service branch, stop work and form up along the driveway to render a slow ceremonial salute as the hearse departs. Escorts also participated in each formation until it was their time to leave.
On this day there were some civilian workers doing construction on the mortuary grounds. As each hearse passed, they would stop working and place their hard hats over their hearts. This was my first sign that my mission with PFC Phelps was larger than the Marine Corps and that his family and friends were not grieving alone.
Eventually I was the last escort remaining in the lounge. The Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant in charge of the Marine liaison there came to see me. He had Chance Phelps's personal effects. He removed each item: a large watch, a wooden cross with a lanyard, two loose dog tags, two dog tags on a chain, and a Saint Christopher medal on a silver chain. Although we had been briefed that we might be carrying some personal effects of the deceased, this set me aback. Holding his personal effects, I was starting to get to know Chance Phelps.
Finally we were ready. I grabbed my bags and went outside. I was somewhat startled when I saw the shipping container, loaded three-quarters of the way into the back of a black Chevy Suburban that had been modified to carry such cargo. This was the first time I saw my "cargo" and I was surprised at how large the shipping container was. The Master Gunnery Sergeant and I verified that the name on the container was Phelps's, then they pushed him the rest of the way in and we left. Now it was PFC Chance Phelps's turn to receive the military -- and construction workers' -- honors. He was finally moving towards home.
As I chatted with the driver on the hour-long trip to Philadelphia, it became clear that he considered it an honor to be able to contribute in getting Chance home. He offered his sympathy to the family. I was glad to finally be moving yet apprehensive about what things would be like at the airport. I didn't want this package to be treated like ordinary cargo, but I knew that the simple logistics of moving around a box this large would have to overrule my preferences.
When we got to the Northwest Airlines cargo terminal at the Philadelphia airport, the cargo handler and hearse driver pulled the shipping container onto a loading bay while I stood to the side and executed a slow salute. Once Chance was safely in the cargo area, and I was satisfied that he would be treated with due care and respect, the hearse driver drove me over to the passenger terminal and dropped me off.
As I walked up to the ticketing counter in my uniform, a Northwest employee started to ask me if I knew how to use the automated boarding pass dispenser. Before she could finish, another ticketing agent interrupted her. He told me to go straight to the counter, then explained to the woman that I was a military escort. She seemed embarrassed. The woman behind the counter already had tears in her eyes as I was pulling out my government travel voucher. She struggled to find words but managed to express her sympathy for the family and thank me for my service. She upgraded my ticket to first class.
After clearing security, I was met by another Northwest Airline employee at the gate. She told me a representative from cargo would be up to take me down to the tarmac to observe the movement and loading of PFC Phelps. I hadn't really told any of them what my mission was but they all knew.
When the man from the cargo crew met me, he, too, struggled for words. On the tarmac, he told me stories of his childhood as a military brat and repeatedly told me that he was sorry for my loss. I was starting to understand that, even here in Philadelphia, far away from Chance's hometown, people were mourning with his family.
On the tarmac, the cargo crew was silent except for occasional instructions to each other. I stood to the side and saluted as the conveyor moved Chance to the aircraft. I was relieved when he was finally settled into place. The rest of the bags were loaded and I watched them shut the cargo bay door before heading back up to board the aircraft.
One of the pilots had taken my carry-on bag himself and had it stored next to the cockpit door so he could watch it while I was on the tarmac. As I boarded the plane, I could tell immediately that the flight attendants had already been informed of my mission. They seemed a little choked up as they led me to my seat.
About 45 minutes into our flight I still hadn't spoken to anyone except to tell the first-class flight attendant that I would prefer water. I was surprised when the flight attendant from the back of the plane suddenly appeared and leaned down to grab my hands. She said, "I want you to have this" as she pushed a small gold crucifix, with a relief of Jesus, into my hand. It was her lapel pin and it looked somewhat worn. I suspected it had been hers for quite some time. That was the only thing she said to me the entire flight.
When we landed in Minneapolis, I was the first one off the plane. The pilot himself escorted me straight down the side stairs of the exit tunnel to the tarmac. The cargo crew there already knew what was on this plane. They were unloading some of the luggage when an Army Sergeant, a fellow escort who had left Dover earlier that day, appeared next to me. His "cargo" was going to be loaded onto my plane for its continuing leg. We stood side by side in the dark and executed a slow salute as Chance was removed from the plane. The cargo crew at Minneapolis kept Phelps's shipping case separate from all the other luggage as they waited to take us to the cargo area. I waited with the Soldier and we saluted together as his fallen comrade was loaded onto the plane.
My trip with Chance was going to be somewhat unusual in that we were going to have an overnight stopover. We had a late start out of Dover and there was just too much traveling ahead of us to continue on that day. (We still had a flight from Minneapolis to Billings, Montana, then a five-hour drive to the funeral home. That was to be followed by a 90-minute drive to Chance's hometown.)
I was concerned about leaving him overnight in the Minneapolis cargo area. My ten-minute ride from the tarmac to the cargo holding area eased my apprehension. Just as in Philadelphia, the cargo guys in Minneapolis were extremely respectful and seemed honored to do their part. While talking with them, I learned that the cargo supervisor for Northwest Airlines at the Minneapolis airport is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves. They called him for me and let me talk to him.
Once I was satisfied that all would be okay for the night, I asked one of the cargo crew if he would take me back to the terminal so that I could catch my hotel's shuttle. Instead, he drove me straight to the hotel himself. At the hotel, the Lieutenant Colonel called me and said he would personally pick me up in the morning and bring me back to the cargo area.
Before leaving the airport, I had told the cargo crew that I wanted to come back to the cargo area in the morning rather than go straight to the passenger terminal. I felt bad for leaving Chance overnight and wanted to see the shipping container where I had left it for the night. It was fine.
The Lieutenant Colonel made a few phone calls, then drove me around to the passenger terminal. I was met again by a man from the cargo crew and escorted down to the tarmac. The pilot of the plane joined me as I waited for them to bring Chance from the cargo area. The pilot and I talked of his service in the Air Force and how he missed it.
I saluted as Chance was moved up the conveyor and onto the plane. It was to be a while before the luggage was to be loaded so the pilot took me up to board the plane, where I could watch the tarmac from a window. With no other passengers yet on board, I talked with the flight attendants and one of the cargo guys. He had been in the Navy and one of the attendants had been in the Air Force. Everywhere I went, people were continuing to tell me their relationship to the military. After all the baggage was aboard, I went back down to the tarmac, inspected the cargo bay, and watched them secure the door.
When we arrived at Billings, I was again the first off the plane. This time Chance's shipping container was the first item out of the cargo hold. The funeral director had driven five hours up from Riverton, Wyoming, to meet us. He shook my hand as if I had personally lost a brother.
We moved Chance to a secluded cargo area. Now it was time for me to remove the shipping container and drape the flag over the casket. I had predicted that this would choke me up but I found I was more concerned with proper flag etiquette than the solemnity of the moment. Once the flag was in place, I stood by and saluted as Chance was loaded onto the van from the funeral home. I was thankful that we were in a small airport and the event seemed to go mostly unnoticed. I picked up my rental car and followed Chance for five hours until we reached Riverton. During the long trip I imagined how my meeting with Chance's parents would go. I was very nervous about that.
When we finally arrived at the funeral home, I had my first face-to-face meeting with the Casualty Assistance Call Officer. It had been his duty to inform the family of Chance's death. He was on the Inspector/Instructor staff of an infantry company in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I knew he had had a difficult week.
Inside I gave the funeral director some of the paperwork from Dover and discussed the plan for the next day. The service was to be at 1400 in the high school gymnasium up in Dubois, population about 900, some 90 miles away. Eventually, we had covered everything. The CACO had some items that the family wanted to be inserted into the casket and I felt I needed to inspect Chance's uniform to ensure everything was proper. Although it was going to be a closed casket funeral, I still wanted to ensure that his uniform was squared away.
Earlier in the day I wasn't sure how I'd handle this moment. Suddenly, the casket was open and I got my first look at Chance Phelps. His uniform was immaculate -- a tribute to the professionalism of the Marines at Dover. I noticed that he wore six ribbons over his marksmanship badge; the senior one was his Purple Heart. I had been in the Corps for over 17 years, including a combat tour, and was wearing eight ribbons. This Private First Class, with less than a year in the Corps, had already earned six.
The next morning, I wore my dress blues and followed the hearse for the trip up to Dubois. This was the most difficult leg of our trip for me. I was bracing for the moment when I would meet his parents and hoping I would find the right words as I presented them with Chance's personal effects.
We got to the high school gym about four hours before the service was to begin. The gym floor was covered with folding chairs neatly lined in rows. There were a few townspeople making final preparations when I stood next to the hearse and saluted as Chance was moved out of the hearse. The sight of a flag-draped coffin was overwhelming to some of the ladies.
We moved Chance into the gym to the place of honor. A Marine Sergeant, the command representative from Chance's battalion, met me at the gym. His eyes were watery as he relieved me of watching Chance so that I could go eat lunch and find my hotel.
At the restaurant, the table had a flier announcing Chance's service. Dubois High School gym, two o'clock. It also said that the family would be accepting donations so that they could buy flak vests to send to troops in Iraq.
I drove back to the gym at a quarter after one. I could've walked -- you could walk to just about anywhere in Dubois in ten minutes. I had planned to find a quiet room where I could take his things out of their pouch and untangle the chain of the Saint Christopher medal from the dog tag chains and arrange everything before his parents came in. I had twice before removed the items from the pouch to ensure they were all there -- even though there was no chance anything could've fallen out. Each time, the two chains had been quite tangled. I didn't want to be fumbling around trying to untangle them in front of his parents. Our meeting, however, didn't go as expected.
I practically bumped into Chance's stepmom accidentally and our introductions began in the noisy hallway outside the gym. In short order I had met Chance's stepmom and father, followed by his stepdad and, at last, his mom. I didn't know how to express to these people my sympathy for their loss and my gratitude for their sacrifice. Now, however, they were repeatedly thanking me for bringing their son home and for my service. I was humbled beyond words.
I told them that I had some of Chance's things and asked if we could try to find a quiet place. The five of us ended up in what appeared to be a computer lab -- not what I had envisioned for this occasion.
After we had arranged five chairs around a small table, I told them about our trip. I told them how, at every step, Chance was treated with respect, dignity, and honor. I told them about the staff at Dover and all the folks at Northwest Airlines. I tried to convey how the entire Nation, from Dover to Philadelphia, to Minneapolis, to Billings, and Riverton expressed grief and sympathy over their loss.
Finally, it was time to open the pouch. The first item I happened to pull out was Chance's large watch. It was still set to Baghdad time. Next were the lanyard and the wooden cross. Then the dog tags and the Saint Christopher medal. This time the chains were not tangled. Once all of his items were laid out on the table, I told his mom that I had one other item to give them. I retrieved the flight attendant's crucifix from my pocket and told its story. I set that on the table and excused myself. When I next saw Chance's mom, she was wearing the crucifix on her lapel.
By 1400 most of the seats on the gym floor were filled and people were finding seats in the fixed bleachers high above the gym floor. There were a surprising number of people in military uniform. Many Marines had come up from Salt Lake City. Men from various VFW posts and the Marine Corps League occupied multiple rows of folding chairs. We all stood as Chance's family took their seats in the front.
It turned out that Chance's sister, a Petty Officer in the Navy, worked for a Rear Admiral -- the Chief of Naval Intelligence -- at the Pentagon. The Admiral had brought many of the sailors on his staff with him to Dubois to pay respects to Chance and support his sister. After a few songs and some words from a Navy Chaplain, the Admiral took the microphone and told us how Chance had died.
Chance was an artillery cannoneer and his unit was acting as provisional military police outside of Baghdad. Chance had volunteered to man a .50 caliber machine gun in the turret of the leading vehicle in a convoy. The convoy came under intense fire but Chance stayed true to his post and returned fire with the big gun, covering the rest of the convoy, until he was fatally wounded.
Then the commander of the local VFW post read some of the letters Chance had written home. In letters to his mom he talked of the mosquitoes and the heat. In letters to his stepfather he told of the dangers of convoy operations and of receiving fire.
The service was a fitting tribute to this hero. When it was over, we stood as the casket was wheeled out with the family following. The casket was placed onto a horse-drawn carriage for the mile-long trip from the gym, down the main street, then up the steep hill to the cemetery. I stood alone and saluted as the carriage departed the high school. I found my car and joined Chance's convoy.
The town seemingly went from the gym to the street. All along the route, the people had lined the street and were waving small American flags. The flags that were otherwise posted were all at half-staff. For the last quarter mile up the hill, local Boy Scouts, spaced about 20 feet apart, all in uniform, held large flags. At the foot of the hill, I could look up and back and see the enormity of our procession. I wondered how many people would be at this funeral if it were in, say, Detroit or Los Angeles -- probably not as many as were here in little Dubois, Wyoming.
The carriage stopped about 15 yards from the grave and the military pallbearers and the family waited until the men of the VFW and Marine Corps League were formed up and school buses had arrived carrying many of the people from the procession route. Once the entire crowd was in place, the pallbearers came to attention and began to remove the casket from the caisson. As I had done all week, I came to attention and executed a slow ceremonial salute as Chance was being transferred from one mode of transport to another.
From Dover to Philadelphia; Philadelphia to Minneapolis; Minneapolis to Billings; Billings to Riverton; and Riverton to Dubois, we had been together. Now, as I watched them carry him the final 15 yards, I was choking up. I felt that, as long as he was still moving, he was somehow still alive.
Then they put him down above his grave. He had stopped moving.
Although my mission had been officially complete once I turned him over to the funeral director at the Billings airport, it was his placement at his grave that really concluded it in my mind. Now, he was home to stay and I suddenly felt at once sad, relieved, and useless.
The chaplain said some words that I couldn't hear and two Marines removed the flag from the casket and slowly folded it for presentation to his mother. When the ceremony was over, Chance's father placed a ribbon from his service in Vietnam on Chance's casket. His mother approached the casket and took something from her blouse and put it on the casket. I later saw that it was the flight attendant's crucifix. Eventually friends of Chance's moved closer to the grave. A young man put a can of Copenhagen on the casket and many others left flowers.
Finally, we all went back to the gym for a reception. There was enough food to feed the entire population for a few days. In one corner of the gym there was a table set up with lots of pictures of Chance and some of his sports awards. People were continually approaching me and the other Marines to thank us for our service. Almost all of them had some story to tell about their connection to the military. About an hour into the reception, I had the impression that every man in Wyoming had, at one time or another, been in the service.
It seemed like every time I saw Chance's mom she was hugging a different well-wisher. As time passed, I began to hear people laughing. We were starting to heal.
After a few hours at the gym, I went back to the hotel to change out of my dress blues. The local VFW post had invited everyone over to "celebrate Chance's life." The post was on the other end of town from my hotel and the drive took less than two minutes. The crowd was somewhat smaller than what had been at the gym but the post was packed.
Marines were playing pool at the two tables near the entrance and most of the VFW members were at the bar or around the tables in the bar area. The largest room in the post was a banquet/dining/dancing area and it was now called "The Chance Phelps Room." Above the entry were two items: a large portrait of Chance in his dress blues and the Eagle, Globe, & Anchor. In one corner of the room there was another memorial to Chance. There were candles burning around another picture of him in his blues. On the table surrounding his photo were his Purple Heart citation and his Purple Heart medal. There was also a framed copy of an excerpt from the Congressional Record. This was an elegant tribute to Chance Phelps delivered on the floor of the United States House of Representatives by Congressman Scott McInnis of Colorado. Above it all was a television that was playing a photo montage of Chance's life from small boy to proud Marine.
I did not buy a drink that night. As had been happening all day, indeed all week, people were thanking me for my service and for bringing Chance home. Now, in addition to words and handshakes, they were thanking me with beer. I fell in with the men who had handled the horses and horse-drawn carriage. I learned that they had worked through the night to groom and prepare the horses for Chance's last ride. They were all very grateful that they were able to contribute.
After a while we all gathered in the Chance Phelps Room for the formal dedication. The post commander told us of how Chance had been so looking forward to becoming a Life Member of the VFW. Now, in the Chance Phelps Room of the Dubois, Wyoming, post, he would be an eternal member. We all raised our beers and the Chance Phelps Room was christened.
Later, as I was walking toward the pool tables, a Staff Sergeant from the Reserve unit in Salt Lake grabbed me and said, "Sir, you gotta hear this." There were two other Marines with him and he told the younger one, a Lance Corporal, to tell me his story. The Staff Sergeant said the Lance Corporal was normally too shy and modest to tell it but now he'd had enough beer to overcome his usual tendencies.
As the Lance Corporal started to talk, an older man joined our circle. He wore a baseball cap that indicated he had been with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. Earlier in the evening he had told me about one of his former commanding officers, a Colonel Puller.
So, there I was, standing in a circle with three Marines recently returned from fighting with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq and one not so recently returned from fighting with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. I, who had fought with the 1st Marine Division in Kuwait, was about to gain a new insight into our Corps.
The young Lance Corporal began to tell us his story. At that moment, in this circle of current and former Marines, the differences in our ages and ranks dissipated -- we were all simply Marines.
His squad had been on a patrol through a city street. They had taken small arms fire and had literally dodged an RPG round that sailed between two Marines. At one point they received fire from behind a wall and had neutralized the sniper with a SMAW [Shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon] round. The back blast of the SMAW, however, kicked up a substantial rock that hammered the Lance Corporal in the thigh, missing his groin only because he had reflexively turned his body sideways at the shot.
Their squad had suffered some wounded and was receiving more sniper fire when suddenly he was hit in the head by an AK-47 round. I was stunned as he told us how he felt like a baseball bat had been slammed into his head. He had spun around and fell unconscious. When he came to, he had a severe scalp wound but his Kevlar helmet had saved his life. He continued with his unit for a few days before realizing he was suffering the effects of a severe concussion.
As I stood there in the circle with the old man and the other Marines, the Staff Sergeant finished the story. He told of how this Lance Corporal had begged and pleaded with the Battalion Surgeon to let him stay with his unit. In the end, the doctor said there was just no way -- he had suffered a severe and traumatic head wound and would have to be medevaced.
The Marine Corps is a special fraternity. There are moments when we are reminded of this. Interestingly, those moments don't always happen at awards ceremonies or in dress blues at the Marine Corps Birthday Balls. I have found, rather, that they occur at unexpected times and places: next to a loaded moving van at Camp Lejeune's base housing, in a dirty CP tent in northern Saudi Arabia, and in a smoky VFW post in western Wyoming.
After the story was done, the Lance Corporal stepped over to the old man, put his arm over the man's shoulder and told him that he, the Korean War vet, was his hero. The two of them stood there with their arms over each other's shoulders and we were all silent for a moment. When they let go, I told the Lance Corporal that there were recruits down on the yellow footprints tonight that would soon be learning his story.
I was finished drinking beer and telling stories. I found Chance's father and shook his hand one more time. Chance's mom had already left and I deeply regretted not being able to tell her good-bye.
I left Dubois in the morning before sunrise for my long drive back to Billings. It had been my honor to take Chance Phelps to his final post. Now he is on the high ground overlooking his town.
I miss him.
Copyright © 2006 by Matthew Burden