What is it like to stand on the airfield at a ramp ceremony? What is it like when there’s a mortar attack? How many casualties did you take this year?
I’ve had my cherry popped in more ways than one this year but being asked these questions was a milestone I didn’t want to see breached. I flew on a Blackhawk for the first time, fired an AK-47, and felt an earthquake. I stood in my CHU as indirect fire hit our base.
But I didn’t want to talk about what it’s like when someone dies. One of the new lieutenants asked me how many casualties we took this year. I didn’t want to give him a number, I wanted to tell him about the names. The brothers and sisters that we lost. The husbands and wives and sons and daughters.
And now I know how others felt when I asked the questions he put to me. Awkward. Unsure. Irritated. Saddened.
But I gave him the number, hoping he would catch on that I didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t. He asked about the worst day. I told him there were two for me but many more for each soldier in the brigade. The day we lost a battalion commander in a catastrophic blast. I’ll never forget the heavy shock that settled over my shoulders when my boss told me that Warhorse 6 was hit. I wasn’t close to him, but he’d taken time to chew me out several times when I was the brigade signal officer and I respected him. He talked trash to me at a test fire range in Kuwait and I gave it right back. I don’t think he expected a female LT to smart off but then again, he didn’t so much as blink. His sergeant major laughed.
The next hard day struck my then new company hard. One of our soldiers was married to the girl who was hit by a mortar. When I explained this to the new lieutenant, he was shocked. How does someone get hit by a mortar? Wrong place, wrong time? He asked. No. Just being in Iraq. My husband took her death hard as he worked with her. I took her death hard because I worked with her husband, and my heart broke for him.
But then the LT crossed the barrier. He asked about the ramp ceremony. I’ve written about them, but nothing on earth will prepare you to stand at attention, holding a salute you would rather die than drop and see a flag draped coffin carried on to the back of a C-17. No matter how cold or how hot, it is the final respect we pay for our fallen brothers and sisters.
And they suck, because in that coffin is the remnant of a life, a person who’s mission was finally complete here on earth and they were called home. Knowing they are safe and happy now does nothing to ease the ache inside you when you watch that procession.
I did not want to talk about it. I felt myself avoiding his questions and his eyes. I told him I hoped his year here was quiet and that he never had to go to a ramp ceremony or a memorial. They are heart wrenching, even for brothers and sisters I did not know.
Funny, I can write about it so much easier than I can use voice the words. I can’t explain why. Maybe because sitting at my computer, I don’t have to look in your eyes and explain to what it feels like. Maybe because you can’t see my eyes fill or my voice thicken, I can write the words far more easily than I can speak them.
For whatever reason, I don’t want to talk about what it’s like. In that, I am probably more like my combat veteran brothers and sisters than I am different. COL (RET) Merline Lovelace told me that most folks in her generation don’t talk about Vietnam, even after years of work to remove the stigma from veterans of that war. There is a deep shame in our country for how we treated our veterans of Vietnam whereas there is a deep pride in our nation now for our veterans of this war.
It still doesn’t mean I want to talk about it. I’ll write about it instead, because that is my chosen release. Others may be willing to speak about it and if they do, listen. But for now, I don’t wish to speak about it.