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The first sergeant conducts an about-face to address the company. "Company! Atten-shun!" The 160 soldiers and officers of Attack Company snap their heels together. He begins the roll call.
"Here, First Sergeant!"
"Here, First Sergeant!"
"Here First Sergeant!"
"Staff Sergeant [last name]!"
The name of the fallen leaves the first sergeant's tongue. The emptiness weighs on our chests. An acceptance of mortality fills the void.
"... Staff Sergeant [first name, last name]!" The first sergeant's voice grows louder with each call. He yells with a release, not of fury but of agony.
"Staff Sergeant [first name, middle name, last name]!!" The final syllable echoes through the formation. Running noses, pulsating chests. An infectious sadness permeates even the most distant onlooker's body.
The color guard breaks the silence with gentle but firm commands. "Ready, aim, fire!" The commander leads his element in three volley fires. In the distance, a bugler puts brass to lip. The rhythmless tune of taps emanates from the horn, surging the ambiance with rushed closure. The music soothes our ears, purging shivers and quivering diaphragms. Our hands continue to alternate between wiping sweat from our foreheads, snot from our noses and tears from our eyes.
The chaplain retakes the podium for the benediction. We bow our heads in prayer.
Four by four, soldiers march to the display and present their tender salutes. Upon ordering arms, we get down on one knee in front of the photo. Some pray. Some talk to friends. Some just stare, trying to feel as if this is real. The fallen's closest friends and colleagues rip off the velcro name tapes from their soft caps and place them by his picture. I focus on his photo: he is smiling. My spirituality beckons me. I don't want to believe in God right now, but I need to. I pray for his soul. I pray he is at peace.
The hardest part about writing this piece was not the recollection of the sights and emotions of a friend's passing but deciding what to call him. Perhaps it will mean more to you if you reread the roll call, inserting the first, middle and last names of a loved one you know serving overseas. I ask you to offer your empathy to the soldiers, wives, children and parents who pay the bill for our freedom each day. Memorial Day comes but once a year, but for the sake of those who will go anywhere and do anything to preserve the way we live, I hope that emotion stays with you forever.
Rajiv Srinivasan served as a Stryker platoon leader in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. He hails from Roanoke, Va.