Was asked yesterday morning if I would be free to fly out to Bagram with other Embassy staff to attend what is called a Fallen Hero ceremony.
It is unfortunately exactly what you think it is: the beginning of the final trip home for a fallen American serviceman or woman, some father, son, wife, or sister escorted with incredible solemnity onto a military aircraft.
I and an Air Force officer from our shop showed up early at the landing zone, a soccer field which serves double duty as a helicopter LZ. While he started checking people off as they arrived for the lift, I jogged out on to the field to tell the two young male soccer coaches that they needed to clear the field. I was wearing my flak and helmet out of habit, even though we weren't required to do so. I can't remember the last time I flew on a helo without a flak and helmet. The two coaches didn't want to stop their team's practice (a girls team, which I thought was interesting), but when I pointed past them into the sky at the helicopters coming on, they shooed them off into the stands.
About 20 of us, half civilians dressed in black, men and women, half military, stood on the perimeter of the field as two old Soviet MI-8 helicopters - now civilian owned and contracted - swooped in, hover, and lightly touched down. I led one stick of 10 civilians out to the far helo, minding the tail boom, and within minutes, we were aloft, climbing out over the city.
Kabul could be a beautiful city, surrounded by high mountains, deep blue skies, the afternoon sunlight beginning to drop to the west. We lifted higher, skirting the rims of the beautiful and unbelievably rugged mountains. As usual, I was having trouble staying awake. For some reason, helicopters always put me to sleep. Loud, warm, rocking slightly. I kept nodding off to awake to to view of nothing but the hindu kush. Within 30 minutes, we were flaring to touch down at Bagram.
The two MI-8s set down just to the right of a line of three C-130s from the West Virginia National Guard. Near the hangars, a loose formation was beginning to form. Army soldiers and Navy sailors, Air Force airmen and Marines, the Embassy personnel who had flown in with us, all stood silently, waiting to see how this would go down. There was no laughing, no carrying on. We all knew why we were there.
Two lines of soldiers who had been briefed took their posts to either side of the cargo door of the middle C-130, about twenty soldiers per side. The soldiers making the bulk of the personnel fell into a formation to in front of the hanger. Taking their cue, we lined up to their left, on line, military and Embassy personnel, and came to attention. Four military working dogs and their handlers took the left most position, the dogs laying down quietly on the tarmac until their handlers signaled for them to sit at attentions as well.
A tan HUMMV, unarmored, open-backed with eight soldiers sitting in the back pulled slowly up from the right. It was the cleanest HUMMV I have ever seen. It's tires were washed clean as a car on a showroom floor, the soldiers at attention in the bed. Between their two ranks lay a silver container beneath an American flag.
The HUMMV stopped. The soldiers dismounted the vehicle as a precision drill movement, two out, pause, two out, pause, until they were all down. As the began to reverently remove the casket, the commander of the formation called "Present arms". The small band present began playing; I can't honestly recall what the song was, "America the Beautiful" perhaps. I was too focused on the care and solemnity of the rest of what was going on. Once the casket was out, the eight pall bearers began their slow walk to the rear of the aircraft. As the casket moved past the color guard, the unit colors dipped in respect while the American flag remained high, bearing witness to her fallen son. The airfield, noisy only minutes before, had become suddenly quiet. Even a pair of F-15 Strike Eagles that had come in for a landing during the ceremony seemed strangely silent as they touched down.
Once the casket was aboard, the chaplain, General Hood from the Embassy, the senior civilian representative, and members of the fallen soldier's unit crowded into the back of the aircraft as well. A small service was begun right there in the cargo bay, led by the chaplain.
The formation we were a part of was given the order to dismiss. While not in formation, we quietly awaited the completion of the service going on in the aircraft. Once complete, the General and senior rep from the Embassy joined us as we moved to the MI-8s and climbed aboard. As the rotors began to turn, I sat, strapped in to the seat, quietly watching the C-130 sitting alone, now attended only by the flight crew. The other helo taxied out onto the runway, and we fell in behind, slowly bouncing along as we rolled out, and suddenly lifted gently into the air. 30 minutes later, retracing our route back into Kabul, and we were down on the soccer field again. Mission complete.
God bless the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines out across this blighted land tonight. And God bless those kids we put into aluminum containers, gently load into a cargo aircraft, and send back home to their families and their nation.