As fate would have it, I was twice at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan when the following occurred.
In the dark of night (the first at 0200, the second night at 0400), while many of us were asleep, the base intercom shattered the already unquiet night (no matter what time, day or night, the whine of jet engines screaming and other activities fill the air at Bagram).
The voice called us out to join together to honor a fallen comrade.
As we pulled ourselves from the warmth of our sleeping bags (it was in winter months of November and February) and in the dark we fumbled to get into our uniforms, put on our cover, coat and gloves and we left our tents to walk up to the main street of the base. As we stumbled out to the street, we joined together in a fellowship only we servicemembers can truly appreciate.
We lined up standing side-by-side on the street. Men. Women. Americans. British—all coalition members. Both sides of the street we stood.
I leaned inward and looked to my left and right. What I saw was sobering. For the entire length of the street… at least a mile, I saw an unbroken line of servicemembers, hundreds of us, from all branches of service. We stood in silence. Alone in our thoughts, some in silent prayer. And we solemnly waited.
Eventually a vehicle would turn on to the street, from a starting point I do not know. It slowly approached us. As it neared, we all snapped to! Standing at attention. Being pulled behind the vehicle was a cart carrying a flag-draped coffin.
As the vehicle neared each of us we rendered a hand salute. As it passed we slowly de-saluted and returned to Attention!
We stood for a few minutes before breaking ranks and we returned to our tents, to the gym, to the Pat Tillman USO Center, the dining facilities, to our own thoughts and our own devices.
These two men's coffins were loaded aboard an awaiting plane to return their bodies home. Home to their loved ones.
For us, life went on.
Except for these two brave men (the first was American, the second a few months later, was a Polish soldier). You see, we didn’t care of what nationality. We didn’t care if we personally knew them or not.
We cared that they were honored… and especially that they were remembered. Someone’s son, brother, grandson, someone’s husband. Someone’s friend.
As I walked away from the second ceremony early that morning I remember thinking of the poor family back home that was probably just learning of their loved one’s death. I cried.
I was not in Afghanistan 11 months ago, but I know my former student Ben Rast was afforded this time honored ceremony after his death. I hope the Fallen Comrade Ceremonial Parade offers some comfort to those personally affected. I know I was. I’ll never forget it.
I wish I could present you a photograph of this ceremony. I almost took my camera (both times) with me that night and then thought better of it. I didn’t want to be “on duty” for this. I wanted to honor these two men in full. Somehow taking a picture for my own edification felt wrong. I don’t regret it, and you know, none of this was for me, it was for our honored dead.
I hope that ceremonies such as this are soon a thing of the past. Please think of this as you enjoy the Memorial Day weekend. The true meaning of the holiday is not for any of us, but for those who fought, and especially for those who died defending the ideals of what we hold dear.
U.S. Navy Hospitalman Ben Rast
Dec. 24, 1987 - April 6, 2011