13 November 2003
I didn’t know the guy. I wanted to say I’d seen him around, but of that I wasn’t entirely sure. The name sounded familiar. At least I thought it did. Still, I figured it was a good idea to go. If it were for me, I’d want people to attend, even folks who didn’t know me that well. Besides, some of the folks I knew did know him, so I’d go for them, too.
Now I’d been to memorial services before back in my civilian life, but the sight of that helmet—his helmet—perched on top of his rifle made me take pause. A pair of dog tags hung down, presumably bearing his name. At the base of the display was a pair of desert boots, just like mine. Had they actually been removed from the feet of the dead man? A morbid curiosity as to the provenance of the footwear accompanied the feeling of cold sadness that coursed through my body. The sadness was not so much for the man taken, but for those still standing, who, I realized, could be snatched away at any moment. Sadness, too, for the folks back home who’d gotten that terrible call.
The air-conditioning was turned up high, so it was chilly inside the room. In the congregation, men and women in uniform dabbed their eyes. A couple guys who knew him got up and said a few kind words. The chaplain read from the Bible and the portable-organist played Amazing Grace. Hearing that song in the heart of the Arab Muslim world struck me as notably odd. We were in a little Christian cocoon on the banks of the Tigris.
Then there was the roll call. An army tradition, the name of the dead man is called out three times. No reply. A trumpeter then blows Taps. The chaplain that day recounted the story of how Winston Churchill, at his own request, had first Taps, then Reveille played at his funeral, signifying that, in death, a new day had dawned. That was a nice sentiment. I waited for our trumpeter to follow suit, but he did not. I guess there was know way of knowing if that was something the dead man wanted, so they erred on the side of silence.
It was one of those dastardly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that got him. Terrifying little things. They can be hidden anywhere. Those little buggers have enough bang to rip apart a convoy, or at least the fleshy, human part of a convoy.
At the end of the ceremony, we all streamed past the make-shift altar that bore some of his personal affects, to include a photograph. The face was completely foreign to me. My original notion that it was a good idea to be there left me, and I felt like kind of a phony. Besides, that helmet and those boots were creeping me out so I shuffled as quickly (yet respectfully) as I could to the door. Outside, the weather was warm and the date palms were laden with plump bushels of fruit. A bird swooped in the sky and a stray dog ambled by and I was very happy to be back in the world of the living.
The next day his commander would accompany him back to the States. The officer would stand with the new wife (now new widow) as they laid him in the small cemetery in his small hometown. Another white marker to be dressed up by the local Legion post on all the Veterans Days to come. That night, his death made the nightly BBC news. No name was mentioned. Just another American soldier killed in Iraq.