It is the early days of January 2010, and the company forms to the front of the memorial display at the chapel of the forward operating base in Afghanistan. The backdrop for the small shrine: the crossed staffs of an American flag and the regimental colors. An M4 rifle stands upright, its bayonet lodged into a felt-covered wooden desk in front of the flags, the pistol grip facing the audience. The fallen soldier's helmet rests on the weapon's buttstock, shielding it as it once did his silhouette. Two dog tags dangle from the rifle's pistol grip, clamoring in the desert wind. Below, centered on the rifle's barrel and arrayed at the position of attention, are the soldier's desert tan boots tied, laces tucked.
Leaning against the laces is a framed portrait of the fallen: Staff Sergeant [last name]. A Purple Heart medallion, presented in its original black silk-laden box, shines prominently in front of the picture.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the ceremony will begin in two minutes," says the chaplain in his hospitable Southern twang. The imposing battalion and brigade leadership files out of the chapel, programs and bios of the fallen in hand.
"Company! Atten-shun!" calls out the Attack Company first sergeant, bringing the gaggle to order. I wince, contemplating how many memorials our first sergeant has stood for in his lifetime. He has had seven deployments and two decades in the Army. "Parade rest!"
"Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for the invocation," the chaplain begins. "Father, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life of one of your finest servants: Staff Sergeant [first name, middle initial, last name] ..." My mind drifts off into the clear blue sky. I still hear the radio traffic in my head. It replays in my conscience like a broken record: Contact! Contact! IED! ... The lower half of his body! It's blown off! That was Christmas Day 2009. My quaking cheek muscles wring a tear from my eyes.
The battalion commander takes the podium first. He speaks of the staff sergeant's career and dedication to the mission. His words are kind and sincere. The company commander follows with his bio: where he was born, where he enlisted. "Staff Sergeant [last name] is survived by his wife and his three sons."
I see those boys, first smiling and laughing, and then I see them in horror, with frantic tears upon hearing the words "We regret to inform you ..." I wonder how these children will ever open another Christmas gift again. How many nights they will bargain with God, praying at the foot of their beds: "I'll give back every single gift I'll ever get for the rest of my life, for just one more day with my dad."
As the commander stands down, the staff sergeant's platoon sergeant and dear friend rises for his remarks. We know his heartfelt eulogy is sure to be filled with humor a refreshing change of pace from the sadness that overwhelms the audience. "Staff Sergeant [last name] and I had some great times. There was never anything but a smile on his face. I loved watching him slap food out of his soldiers' faces. And with a dead stare and straight face, snarling, "You can't eat, you're in A Co.!"
The staff sergeant's platoon leader speaks next. He reads from Psalm 23: "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." As the platoon leader takes his seat, a bagpipe quintet begins a rendition of "Amazing Grace." The nasal reverberation of the pipes stuns my eardrums. It brings my conscience back to the ceremony, back to the realization: he's gone.