I did my best to describe the funeral of a hero, Benjamin James Slaven, a soldier from my son's company (here). Today, I received an email from my son describing the memorial service the company held for Ben in Iraq. I have no words.
It's been at least a month since I posted anything meaningful here. Part of it is the usual stuff: too many missions, too little time in the rear. Part of it is that world issues seem to pale in comparison to some of the things that have happened here recently. The company is still very much in recovery after Ben Slaven's death, and before the memories start to fade, I've decided to deliver a counterpoint to my father's unbelievably moving account of his funeral. I can only hope to be half as eloquent.
14 June 2006, 0730 hours.
It begins with a company formation. Platoons separated by five paces; crisp, clean uniforms and smart, fresh haircuts. Somber faces and shrinkwrapped eyes that turn too quickly under scrutiny. Everyone tries to forget the post chapel behind them and the monument to a fallen brother that lies on a raised dais within. Second platoon is twelve short, missing a full squad. That twelve is inside, saying goodbye to a young man they've all grown to love, someone who's been with them nearly every day for the past eight months.
Right face. By platoon, file from the right, column right. Clear weapons in the clearing barrel. Trudge into the chapel, second row on the right, take seats with weapon under chair.
There is hardly a whisper as the sight is taken in. On a raised platform sits a pair of boots, an M-16 pointing barrel down, sights out, a Kevlar helmet resting atop the buttstock, a set of dogtags dangling from the charging handle. To either side of the weapon are two medals: the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Purple Heart. Resting below the boots is a framed photograph of a smiling young soldier. Once all seats have been taken, the company first sergeant releases everyone on the condition they arrive back at their places by 0830. Many soldiers jump at the chance for a cigarette or two or ten. For many it's just an excuse to get away from the photo, where smiling eyes belie the business of the day. It's difficult to describe the emotions. Sadness, frustration, impotent anger, and, though they'll never say it aloud, relief. "It wasn't me," they all think somewhere in the deepest recesses of their minds. This is not dishonorable, but human, a natural reaction to an unnatural situation. The smell of burning tobacco cuts through the air as sparse chatter flares up here and there among the crowd. All count the minutes.
The chapel is packed now. Soldiers from the battalion, soldiers from the brigade, majors, colonels, even a general. Though they honor themselves and the fallen, they are interlopers, men and women who didn't know the young man whose life is being commemorated here. There is a camera to the right, recording the ceremony for a family in mourning 7,000 miles away. There is a keyboardist playing "Hero" in a continuous loop. And then it begins. The National Anthem starts and roughly five hundred soldiers rise smartly, arms stiff at the sides, thumbs dressed to pant seams, feet together at the heels and canted at a forty-five degree angle. The song ends, and is followed by the invocation from the battalion chaplain.
Next are remarks from the fallen soldier's friends. His squad leader reads his biography, his driver and good friend reads a personal statement. The company commander gives a short speech, and is followed by the company first sergeant with a scripture reading. The chaplain then reads his own personal statement. Through it all, most have kept their composure, but none are prepared for the final roll call.
The names of the soldier's squad leader, truck commander, and driver are called by the first sergeant and answered. "Specialist Slaven!" Silence. "Specialist Benjamin Slaven!" Silence. "Specialist Benjamin James Slaven!" BANG! The crack of seven rifles fired in unison causes many to jump. Tears spring to eyes. They fire again, and again, and then the lone bugle plays its dirge.
Soldiers fall into line after a few moments to take a walk across the platform and salute the monument to Specialist Slaven. When it's my turn, I stride slowly, execute a right face, and bring my hand slowly to my brow. As I bring my hand back to my side I'm aware of the moisture in my eyes, which turn down as I execute a left face and leave the platform. I see for the first time how full the room really is, as there are many soldiers standing along the back wall. It's all I can do not to run outside, into daylight, away from that monument that means that my friend will never see his dreams of becoming a drill sergeant, an underwater welder, a husband or a father come to life. Run away from the fear that one day my own picture will be in front of that monument, that I'll never see my fiancée or my parents or my brothers and sisters again. Run away from the fear that I'll never become a teacher and raise a family. But I don't run. I walk as quickly as discipline allows outside, where my friends wait and share my grief.