“Sergeant James Brown?”

“No longer with us, First Sergeant!”

The arrangement was the same:  The upside down rifle with the muzzle in the stand, helmet on the rifle butt, a pair of the soldiers’ boots by the muzzle and the soldier’s dog tags hanging from the rifle’s pistol grip. A slideshow scrolled, pictures from happier times:  family photos, goofy army poses, and the last picture with their kids. This was no longer a memorial service for Sergeant Brown, but rather for James Brown; father, husband, brother, son, friend.

Growing up I liked the sound of bugles and bagpipes; especially bagpipes, since they were rarely heard, only during parades.   As a Boy Scout, I marched in Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day parades.  I never saw the bag pipers, only heard songs I never knew, but enjoyed.

My attitude towards bugles and bagpipes was forever changed.  Now, whenever I hear a bugle or bagpipe I feel sad and become somber while trying to suppress bad memories of lost friends, memorial services attended and the guilt of coming back after cheating death a few times myself.

I had to tell the Piper at my daughter’s wedding that ‘Amazing Grace’ was off the play list.

During my three deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan I attended far too many Memorial Services and Ramp Ceremonies for fallen American and Coalition service members and Contractors.  These events would be monthly, weekly or even daily, forever burned into my emotional memory.

Memorial Services are an opportunity to say good bye to fallen comrades, conducted by the fallen soldier’s unit.  The unit’s chain of command and numerous guests were invited.  Many other soldiers also attended to say ‘good bye’ and show support.  As a soldier with a lot of outside the wire time, and having cheated death a few times, the Memorial Services served as a reminder that being good was not as important as being lucky.

 The Memorial Services were held in gyms, chapels or an outside area large enough to accommodate a few hundred attendees.

 Before the final prayer, was the “Role Call”- a reminder the soldier is no longer with us, without a doubt, the absolute most moving and emotional portion of the Memorial Service: 

      First Sergeant:           Private Jones?

     Private Jones:            Here First Sergeant!

     First Sergeant:           Sergeant Johnson?

     Sergeant Johnson:     Here First Sergeant!

     First Sergeant:           Sergeant Brown?

     – No response

     First Sergeant:           Sergeant Brown?

     – No response

By now there are no dry eyes.  It is not unusual to see soldiers from the deceased soldiers’ unit openly sobbing, male or female, does not matter, saying good bye is never easy.  It was painful to watch grown men and women mourning the loss of a comrade.  Seeing hardened soldiers trained to ignore physical and mental pain and survived combat openly weep was also sad.

Soldiers are people too, with emotions; not steely, silent machines.  On occasion, soldiers were so overcome with grief and sorrow they had to take a knee or be escorted to a chair until they regained their composure. For the soldiers’ leaders, this was not their time to openly mourn, that would come later.

The bugle played ‘Taps’.  Even I would get misty eyed and I usually have ice water in my veins.

After the Chaplin’s last words, the soldiers lined up, marching to the picture, helmet and boots, rendering a final salute.  The soldier’s leaders would go first, then up the chain of command, followed by the soldiers’ unit and then all other soldiers and civilians.

While deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan March through December 2009 at least twice a week I attended Ramp Ceremonies, many weeks more.

The Ramp Ceremony is also a solemn event.  All personnel, military, coalition or contract who died in Southern or Western Afghanistan began their final journey home through Kandahar Airfield returning to their family.  The frequency of Ramp Ceremonies reflected the combat operations tempo, the more combat operations, the more Ramp Ceremonies.  Some of the worse days, there were even two or three.

Lead by the Base Command Sergeant Major, the Ramp Ceremony was held on the air field ramp, near the Coalition morgue; the remains would be brought to the ramp area by military vehicle.   The plane would be positioned on the air field ramp, the remains loaded and secured.  After loading, the plane would depart.

Usually there would be no less than a few hundred military personnel in attendance.  Civilian contractors, many are retired or former military would also show their support and attend Ramp Ceremonies out of respect for their fallen comrades.  Coalition units were assembled by country.    Once assembled the units would march to their pre-designated areas by the aircraft.  After the vehicle carrying the remains arrived, the ceremony began.  A Chaplin would say a few words and a prayer or two.

The pall bearers, from the deceased soldier’s unit, march to the vehicle and lift the flag draped coffin, carrying it the old fashioned way on their shoulders.  The bearers carried the remains to the awaiting aircraft.  Bag pipes would play in the back ground, until the remains were carried on to the aircraft, then the bag pipes would play one of my favorite songs, ‘Amazing Grace’.

The bagpiper played ‘Amazing Grace’ until the remains were carried up the aircraft’s rear tail gate. The pall bearers would leave the aircraft only after the coffin was secured to the aircraft’s floor.

During spring 2010, about three months after my fourth deployment and only one to Afghanistan, I attended a local performance of the 1960’s counter-cultural musical ‘Hair.’ During the play’s final scene, after the lead male was ‘killed’ in Viet Nam and laid on stage, ‘dead’, draped with an American flag, the soles of his boots clearly visible, I began to change: my breaths became shorter and quicker, almost panting. I grinded my teeth, my pulse quickened and I was gripping the seats arm rests.  My wife Liz asked me if I was going to be ‘OK’.  I said ‘yes’, which was partially true, how could I tell her I was ‘pretty far from being ‘OK’’.