A reader writes:
I really have to chime in on this topic. I spent the better part of last year deployed to Afghanistan, where I was stationed at Bagram. Part of my job, actually the most important part, was to coordinate the transfer of my unit's fallen back home. This was something that I never, ever looked forward to, but it was a duty I took very seriously. Part of this duty was a departure ceremony as our fallen left Afghanistan for Dover. I don't think you can ever realize how powerful these ceremonies are until you've taken part in one.
At Bagram, all personnel not performing an essential task would line up on the main drive through Bagram. As the open backed HUMMV carrying the flagged draped transfer case slowly proceeded from the mortuary down the main drive to the airfield, everyone would come to attention and render a salute. There would be thousands of people, soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, lined up as for this. The fallen hero would be taken on to the tarmac and driven to an empty C-17 that had its ramp lowered, waiting to receive the transfer case. An honor guard and a cordon, as well as hundreds of servicemen and women, would be silently standing at attention as an honor guard carried the remains to the center of the aircraft. Whenever possible I would arrange for the honor guard and cordon to come from the fallen's team or platoon. Always, always, always, they wanted to be the ones to perform this service.
The last fallen hero ramp ceremony I put together still stings in my memory.
Ramadan had just ended, it was the first few weeks of autumn. A few kilometers from our base one of our police mentoring teams (PMT) was almost attacked by a vehicle bourne improvised explosive device (VBIED). I say almost as the attack was thwarted by one of our HUMMV drivers who took evasive action. Unfortunately, this resulted in the rollover of the HUMMV which caused the death of the driver. I was at the mortuary when the MEDEVAC helicopter brought this young man's broken body in to be prepared for the journey home.
The rest of his team were brought to Bagram as well. They were very adamant that they be the ones to escort the fallen brother to the C17. Although dirty and disheveled from their encounter, I agreed as I am certain their brother would have had it no other way. To a man, they wanted me to know one essential fact about him: he was Muslim. They insisted that he be sent home with a Muslim cleric presiding. We had one at Bagram, a major who was an Islamic chaplain - in fact I had dinner with this man just a few nights prior. We were able to grant the PMT's request.
I do not have the words to adequately describe the emotion in the night air on the tarmac. Under a crescent moon the fallen hero was carried onto the C17 by his team brothers, followed by the honor guard, the Commanding General and Command Sergeant Major of the 101st Airborne, and of course the Muslim chaplain.
(Photo: U.S. Army soldiers stand together as salute during the playing of taps at the memorial service that U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama attended for the thirteen victims of the shooting rampage allegedly by U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan on November 10, 2009 in Fort Hood, Texas. Hasan, an army psychiatrist, is accused of killed 13 people and wounded 30 in a shooting at the military base on November 5, 2009. By Joe Raedle/Getty Images)