Occasionally on social media I have seen people who rail about how people are quick to mention Miley’s latest panty-free night on the town or Hilary’s claim that her tumor told her to run for President or even that the most popular current Republican found a way to cut taxes for his best friend’s company right before awarding him a no-bid contract to provide unneeded services at exorbitant costs. Each of these rants against the paparazzi, politicians, or the most recent harebrained Hollywood death follows with a frank discussion on how no one seems to dwell on the young 19-year-old that just died the day before in our continuing Global War on Terrorism. While it seems this may belittle the latter somewhat, it is the sentiment intended there that I am attempting to invoke without actually naming any of the inane events that precipitate such actions. After just over one year boots on the ground in Afghanistan, I’ve learned how incredibly pointless such attention lavished on those former activities is.
My job entails a large degree of email, most days I average at least 10 per hour. When you work 10-12 hour days that means an awful lot of chatter. In addition to the two non-classified work email addresses I have (because I don’t count emails to the non-work email) there are two other computer systems that are classified. I call them the red and purple accounts, one is for coalition secured emails, the other American only secured emails. With the barrage of other activities I often find my colored accounts neglected and when I remember them I log in to find that I have again missed notification of repatriation ceremonies. This day was an exception.
Without constant monitoring it is easy to miss these since the notice usually is sent two to three hours in advance and the ceremonies typically occur between 2200 and 0200. This is due more to the arrival/departure times than it is to the weather, but are no doubt many thankful for that reprieve as well. This day was an exception in that there was a five-hour notice.
At 2140 on the evening of 11 June I joined five of the military protecting us on site visits and our interpreter to travel to the airfield for a repatriation ceremony. Based on my track record, it could be my first and only, but I was there. We drove about a mile before we parked and joined the foot traffic headed toward the ramp. The temperature was about 85 Fahrenheit with a warm breeze blowing despite the lack of sun. There was little conversation as we joined the group. The hushed noise of typical runway activity provided a backdrop to the activity.
After walking another half mile, there were two formations facing one another with a wide path in between them. Anyone who has served in the military knows that in addition to the high amount of waiting around, if you see a line you simply join in without worrying about what it is for. After we stood there for about five minutes an American walked by shouting for coalition forces to move to the rear.
In a sea of camouflage, the other civilian I saw stood out as much as me, but it was this that attracted my attention to the fact that this was not merely a gaggle of Americans. Romanians, Georgians, and other ISAF troops wearing different patterns of uniforms were also in attendance. The intent was for Americans to be in the forefront to see our departed soldiers on their way home. The reshuffle brought me to the fifth line of people behind the empty path. Soon an NCO walked down the middle of the formation and gave us the brief amount of information we needed to know for the ceremony. Looking around I estimated the crowd to be between 1000 and 1200 gathered to pay respects.
A short march further down the runway I realized that it has been nearly 16 years since I marched with other soldiers (the anniversary of my ETS being a mere two hours away). As we stood at attention I could see from my peripheral vision vehicles driving up. Each soldier had his own workhorse MRAP as a hearse. I was in the group that faced the airfield and could watch a Remote Piloted Aircraft take off before we went to Present Arms.
While rendering a salute a recording of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes began and the procession started. Five American flag draped caskets and one Afghan flag draped casket went between the lines of formation headed to the C-17 at the far end. Four verses of Amazing Grace and one slow, lone bugle call of Taps later we were given the call to Order Arms.
A second RPA took off as I scanned with my eyes the crowd in front of me. There were short people, tall people, every race, and branch of service was well represented. Some had the look of seriousness, some boredom, and a few looked so dog-tired that I swore they could fall asleep on their feet. Most had long-rifles or pistols though not all were armed. An odd occurrence here.
The ceremony took a half hour all together. A somber, sober reminder that it isn’t all trips to the Boardwalk and gatherings in the MWR. There remains a mission to accomplish and that mission comes at a cost. The cost may be far below what it has been in other wars, but it is no less a bill to be paid. There are lots of reminders in this world. Reminders to wake up. Reminders to go to meetings. Reminders to make phone calls. Reminders of where we are: in the free world, in a first world nation, in a third world nation, or in a war zone. There are reminders to take out the garbage, take the cake out of the oven, and to pass along congratulations. Or condolences. And there are reminders that friendly fire isn’t.
Most of all, there are reminders that freedom isn’t free.