I spent a good portion of 2010 in Afghanistan, where I commanded the Marine Corps' detachment of KC-130s. During my time there, 284 US servicemembers were killed in action, and 110 of their coalition allies. Ninety-nine US Marines were killed, along with 4 Navy corpsmen, all of whom my detachment flew from the forward operating bases to a main base for their final flight back to America.
We would receive the call, often midday when the fighting was worst, that an "Angel Run," or later in the year a "Hero Run," was coming up. We knew another Marine had been killed in action. Some of these Marines were shot or hit by shrapnel from mortars or RPGs in direct combat with the elusive enemy. More often, their bodies were torn apart quite literally by improvised explosive devices, IEDs. These hidden, faceless killers were all over Helmand Province, maiming Marines by the handful. The amazing advances in our body armor and the speed and quality of our medical care meant that double, even triple amputations, wounds that would have surely been fatal in earlier wars, were survivable in some cases. I go to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego sometimes and am struck by the number of young Marines moving about the place on crutches, in wheelchairs, and with prosthetic legs. In other cases, the trauma was just too great and we would get the call. Helicopters flew their mangled bodies from the field to a forward operating base where they would be prepared for movement and placed in metal transfer cases. This often took hours, so we often picked them up after night fell.
After a day of shuttling cargo and passengers around Helmand Province, the crew would be told what time the Hero Ceremony would go. We would land at the FOB and shut down. Other traffic was kept away. An eerie silence fell over the night, the only time in 24/7 operations that the place was quiet. We sat in the dark at the back of our empty airplane, waiting. The loadmasters prepared the cargo compartment and hung a flag, illuminated only by flashlights. In the dark, we would hear first footsteps in the gravel as Marines began to show up, then the brakes of an MRAP or HMMMWV ambulance. We took our places at the end of the aircraft, then silently two ranks formed, one on each side of the ramp, stretching out into the night toward the hearse.
Once in place, the formation was called to attention. The chaplain said a prayer for the departed, then the transfer case was carried between the ranks and into the waiting aircraft. Once the transfer case had been gingerly placed in the aircraft, the formation was dismissed and Marines were welcomed to pay their last respects. As aircrew, we stayed in place as these Marines came up in twos to have a last moment with the deceased. In some cases, these mourners were senior leadership from the unit. Other nights, it was the Marine's friends that had come in at the end of the patrol or operation. It was heart-rending to hear their labored breathing in the night. On occasion, visibly wounded Marines would be there, I imagined they were at the point of injury, perhaps wounded by the same blast. I can only imagine their thoughts. Lives changed forever.
As I stood there, I thought about the body, most likely mangled and certainly still warm in the transfer case. Life left that body under the burning Afghan sun while parents, children, spouses, and friends slept half a world away in America. They woke that day like they would any other. Potentially, as this lifeless body was being loaded into the KC-130, they were receiving the dreaded knock, the uniformed silhouettes outside the window, the denial, the reality of lives forever changed.
As the last mourners crunched through the gravel and into the darkness, we brought the aircraft back to life, starting the power unit, bringing the lights back on in the night, closing the ramp and door, and clambering into our seats for the flight home. Under a new callsign, we departed into the night and flew to the main base in near silence. Upon arrival to our parking, my detachment would be waiting to repeat the ceremony as the transfer case was carried into a mortuary affairs truck for further processing before the final flight on a massive Air Force aircraft back to the US.
The journey takes all through the National Military Mortuary at Dover AFB, Delaware, then on to hometowns and final resting spots. Some end up in local cemeteries and others in the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. I have friends in both. The local cemeteries seem somehow more natural. Arlington is a grand but haunted place, especially Section 60. This is the section where the new war dead are buried. If you have visited Arlington as a tourist, you will have come through the main gate and seen the crowds boarding trams to the historic sites. Once through the main building, take a left instead and walk on in quiet. Few are headed this way. You will pass a parking lot where funeral processions marshall, then a few empty fields, as I remember. Section 60 is down a few blocks this way, at the edge of the cemetery. The plot looks across the river to the capital, where the decisions that planted these young men were made. The ground is still soft and torn where these bodies were interred. Trinkets and mementos adorn the few trees in the plot, sit on the headstones, or next to them. The birthdates on the headstones mostly postdate all the other wars to which monuments have been erected in the cemetery and the surrounding city. The dates of death still echo in the memory. Casting your eyes about at the harvest, especially if you know some of them, your soul aches.
One night after one of my hero flights landed, I stepped in to help carry the transfer case. The handle was surprisingly narrow and unadorned. It transmitted the weight sharply into the palm of my hand as we lifted it into the waiting truck. This is the weight a Nation should feel when it chooses courses of foreign policy. This is the weight of the pledge made in our Declaration of Independence. This anonymous weight, however, cannot compare to the crushing burden shouldered by the family and friends of the young departed heros of our military adventures.