Friday, February 25, 2005

Final Tribute

I participated in a ceremony the other night to honor two soldiers that had fallen. It is called the "Patriot" detail and is organized by the Air Force to honor the remains of fallen soldiers being transported out of Iraq.

We met at a small building at the edge of the runway. It was about 9:00pm, and the wind was blowing bitterly cold. There were about 70 Soldiers and Airmen standing patiently awaiting instructions. An Air Force Sergeant came out to brief us that a flight was inbound to initiate the journey home for the remains of two soldiers that had recently died. He gave us a brief set of instructions, and we all stood silently waiting for the plane. Not long after, a C-130 landed and taxied toward our location.

I anxiously waited for some type of rehearsal knowing the importance of the event, but there was none. The group was a mix of volunteers from all over the post that had heard of the need for participation in the small but meaningful ceremony. With a single command the group formed two even ranks, and we began to march towards the plane. The engines shut down, and the tail of the aircraft opened.

The Load Masters prepared the ramps, as we approached the aircraft in two long lines. Once we were in place, the two lines stopped and faced each other. We went to parade rest and waited. The night air was cuttingly cold, and the openness of the concrete runway dropped the temperature a few more degrees.

As I stood there facing another Soldier, the magnitude of what we were there for overwhelmed me. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the row of Soldiers and Airmen standing motionless and silent. The light from the back of the aircraft extended about halfway to my position, and then the darkness took over. I did not know the identity of those we were about to honor, just that besides a ceremony at their individual unit location, this was another way to honor the sacrifice of two soldiers going home.

After a few minutes I could see three vehicles with flashing lights approaching the end of our formation. A few Soldiers exited the vehicles and after a brief discussion, we were given the command to come to attention. The back doors of the second vehicle opened, and the soldiers carefully secured the Flag-covered container within. As they began their march through our formation, the command "Present Arms" was sounded. Without any rehearsal, the group executed the command in slow motion to perfection.

As the flag slowly passed my position, I thought to myself that this individual woke up less than 24 hours ago with no idea that today would be his last here on earth. I could not help but think of the family. Had they been notified yet? How were they coping with the news? What impact would this loss have on them and the soldier's unit? The Flag-covered container was placed in the aircraft, and the bearers returned to the back of the third vehicle. They secured the second Flag-covered container, and with the precision of a practiced drill team, the group again came to present arms.

Once secured, the two lines faced the aircraft, and we all boarded to say our own farewell. A Chaplain read a scripture and said a beautiful prayer, followed by a moment of silence. The group walked silently back to the small building where we originally met, and everyone dispersed from there without a word. I was deeply touched by the way these two soldiers were honored on their final journey home. I've attended ceremonies at Arlington and at Fort Bragg, and although this ceremony was not meant to be their last, it was comforting to know that the military gives this type of care and respect for remains until they reach their final destination. The Military and its members truly honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

Take Care and God Bless.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Missing Home

Thanks again to everyone for the kind words, thoughts, and prayers you are sending to me and the troops. Please don't ever underestimate the importance of your support. I would especially like to thank everyone who has stayed in touch with and assisted the families of soldiers during their separation. It really makes a difference in the soldier's performance here when he knows that his family is well cared for back home. So, for everyone out there involved in helping with any soldier's family while they are gone -- Thanks!

We've received fewer mortars since the elections, so maybe the bad guys are realizing that we're not so bad after all. We still get a few a week, but it is not a daily thing as of late. G2 (intelligence) attributes some of the trend to bad weather, so the upcoming months should give us a better picture. The weather now is cold and wet. Cold is relative to where you come from, but the wet part here is what really slows things down. Rain here is like snow in the south - everything is affected and travel becomes more difficult. The bad guys are still planting IED's on the roads, and several have hit the convoys leaving our area, and we hear through the news that other posts are receiving the same types of attacks.

My troops continue to do a great job. Some are starting to feel the effects of being separated from their families and are fighting through those emotions while trying to keep things together here. I guess it is normal to have that helpless feeling about the things that are going on back home. I know our friends and families are feeling the same way about us. I try to keep everyone talking, so no one holds in any problems that we all might be able to tackle together.

I've noticed a couple of things that you may find interesting. One is Prayer. At almost every major briefing I attend, a chaplain is present to give some words of wisdom and lead us in a "non-denominational" prayer. It really makes you feel good inside to see Generals and Lieutenants along with Sergeants and Privates praying together. No one questions the prayer or complains that it violates his beliefs. They all just bow their heads and for a few moments everyone in the room is on an even keel. Then, as soon as the Amen is sounded, everyone reverts back to his rank and role and drives on with the mission at hand. It is a pretty humbling experience.

Second is Diversity. Most Americans may not realize how diverse our soldiers are compared to other countries fighting this war. When you look across a room of American troops, you see males and females of all sorts of backgrounds. Without the uniform you would have no idea where they are from. I've been exposed to other forces here: Australian, Korean, Polish, British and Iraqi. All lacked diversity of almost every kind except age. It just goes to show that although we aren't perfect, we are a hell of a lot further along then everyone else.

I am still amazed at the amount of teamwork that goes on at all levels, every minute of every day, to make this whole operation work. It truly boggles your mind if you sit back and think of how much "stuff" has to happen at the same time and in the right direction to maintain all that we do here. Not only does it happen, but it is predominantly done by kids under 25 years of age. Food, Ammunition, Supplies, Fuel, Water, Shelter etc. The list goes on and everything flows while bad guys try unsuccessfully to disrupt the rhythm. I see it everyday, and everyday I am invigorated by the efforts of all the players.

Here is an example of the kind of motivational leadership we have in our unit. This is an email I received from our Commander. She is commenting on a recent heroic story coming from the Marines while the media was bashing a General for his comments.

My Commander writes "I sit next to these guys in the mess hall every day, but then I remembered listening to the pundits spin of a decorated marine corps General's words of last week. He said war was a hoot and a thrill. So here's my two cents. Thank God there are men out there that understand their jobs, are willing to do them, and can inspire their men to follow them. Did that general use a bad choice of words to convey his point to the particular audience? Yes. But the bottom line is that to do this work, you have to think it a thrill, or you won't get in the door, let alone walk out. War is hell, and no one knows that better than a soldier. But, we sleep peaceful in our beds at night because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on our behalf."

I wish everyone, in their life, could feel the camaraderie , commitment, and courage of the American soldier. It is a true life changing experience. Thanks again for all of your support.

Take Care and God Bless.