Few moments in life are powerful enough to bring emotional change at a core level. May 19th offered me one of those special moments. A Special Forces NCO got killed around Kabul and his body was being flown home that night. HQ encouraged anyone not doing anything to line the road at midnight in tribute to the fallen. Joe Burke and I grabbed our rifles and took our places in the lines of soldiers along Disney Drive. We could see the HMMWV carrying the flag draped casket at the end of the road, waiting for the escort to get in place. Another hundred or so soldiers lined the road in solemn ranks.
Everything seemed to happen at once; almost a sensory overload. A C-17 just landed, bringing with it a fresh batch of soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division. None of the newbies were enthused. Many wore fearful looks, much the same as our merry group had upon entering enemy air space all those long months ago. Marching out from the opposite side of the road was a group of our guys heading home. They were laughing and shouting in joy. Naturally there was some good natured ribbing going on between the two groups. Combine them with our silent bunch and it was almost too much. Midnight chimed and the SF procession began. A color guard marched in front of the HMMWV, flags waving in a weak breeze. A C-17 waited. The back ramp was down and an ominous red glow filled the cavernous body. Directly behind the plane, almost as if Fate had a hand in this affair, the full moon hung low and bright, illuminating the snow covered mountains in the distance. Marching boots echoed in the silence.
The honor guard was comprised of fellow SF men formed up on both sides of the vehicle. Many had tears in their eyes. Others that look of anger from being robbed of a friend. A pair of Apaches zipped by, followed by Chinooks carrying a company from the 82nd. The soldiers lining the road snapped to attention and saluted as the funeral procession passed them. I could see the end of the casket now and it inspired strong emotions. Rage, sorrow, pride. I could clearly see the pain in those SF soldier’s eyes as they escorted their friend and comrade down the flight line and up into the belly of the plane. Joe and I went to attention and saluted with our rifles. It was much harder to keep a straight face than I imagined. I’d been to the occasional funeral back in the States but those deaths were from training accidents, not combat. This man that none of us knew inspired me. He awakened raw emotions I forgot I had. Strange pride warmed me.
I can’t say where it came from but it was a moment I’ll never forget. Seeing that casket roll by I suddenly realized why I was still in the Army and why I really volunteered to go to Afghanistan. Any lingering doubts were gone, replaced by a sense of satisfaction that came from knowing each and every one of the men and women standing beside me were ready to lay down their lives for people they hardly knew. That’s it. That’s all it is. Soldiers share a bond no newscaster or civilian will ever understand. We’re here so you don’t have to be. So you never need know the horrors of war. That’s what makes us special. It’s the undying devotion to each other that sets us apart regardless of race, creed or nationality. I stayed in the Army all these years not for myself but for those next to me. We carry on despite seeing our comrades fall. We bury our heroes at the expense of our nation’s freedom, whether they support us or not. But that is merely an afterthought. While deployed the only thing that matters is the people on our flanks.
There’s no way I can find to successfully convey the strength of emotions I felt after I dropped my salute. One thing I was sure of was that as long as men and women were willing to leave their lives behind to go fight in a country they never heard of, for people they’ve never met, I’ll be right alongside wearing my nation’s uniform and serving with pride. All of these events helped make my deployment to Afghanistan enduring memory that I can still see when I close my eyes on a quiet day. There are no words to describe the emotions that run through a deployed soldier’s mind when he/she is exposed to such events. Even now as I write this, almost a decade later I can still see the wounded. Can still hear the machine guns and explosions. I can still feel the cold when I step outside and see mountains.