In March of 2011, at 0200 hours (2 a.m.), I stood at a forward operating base near Mosul, Iraq, with about two dozen soldiers. We lined up, adjusted our Kevlar vests and helmets, our fragmentary eye protection and noise headsets, and in the flurry of dust, the womp-womp of rotors and the darkness of night, we boarded a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
We walked up the metal ramp, a crew chief instructed us to move right or left, and then we found our canvas seat, sat down and strapped ourselves into the belly of this huge aircraft. In nearly pitch-dark cover, we sat and said nothing while another crew chief stowed the gear compartments in the middle of the aircraft, tightening the aluminum flooring to the linear roller assembly and then securing them to a tether for departure.
And we lifted off.
The flight was just under three hours with a fuel stop. Our destination was somewhere in the southland of Iraq. (Mosul is in the north.) In the darkness of the Iraqi night, we landed and, in reverse order of our boarding order, we disembarked, grabbing our go-bags as we did, walking immediately aft of the aircraft and then turning left.
Once behind the concrete T-walls that are blast and sound barriers, we finally could remove our eye and ear protection and find our driver for our next assignment at the new forward operating base.
I did not log the many flights like these I’ve taken, or the ones in the Black Hawk helicopter as well, but given my previous 2.5 years of foreign ag service in Afghanistan and Iraq, a reasonable guess is I’ve been on at least 100 of them. But the ones in the Chinook were memorable because of the scale of their size, the characteristics of their flight orders and, always, the timing of the flights – at night.
Let me be clear, my participation on these missions was transport only, and frequently I would be the lone civilian or, perhaps, there would be one or two others.
It is this context that I write of two events. They are separated by six years.
I had just arrived at Bagram Airfield (Afghanistan) in early spring of 2006. That first week, I was told there would be a Fallen Warrior Ramp Ceremony. I stood, with several thousand soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines on Disney Route through the center of the base. Ten humvees slowly passed by while we saluted … en route to the flight line and a Boeing C-17 Globemaster aircraft.
The caskets were hand-carried into the cargo bay, each draped with a crisp, clean American flag. After a departure ceremony, the giant plane taxied to the end of the runway and soon lifted off, turning northwest for Ramstein, Germany, with a final destination of Dover Air Base in Delaware.
The Fallen Warrior Ramp Ceremony changed me. As a civilian thrust into the military environment at the flagpole, I began to understand the seriousness of our mission and the assumptions of danger.
I had yet to ride in a helicopter of any sort, but within days after this event, I did make that first flight. For the first few minutes, I was thinking of the Chinook that had crashed and 10 warriors that had lost their lives.
Yet in this first flight, one that I will never forget, the Black Hawk mission was survey and assessment of a flood zone, and I sat with nearly a dozen U.S. Army soldiers.
I rode in the aft section on the port side while the doors were open, and I will never forget the magnificent perspective of sitting right next to the space that is no more than 1,000 feet above the ground. I was to make many more such flights.
As we all know, the downing and crash of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan on August 6 took the lives of more than three dozen warriors, including a large component of Navy SEALS.
President Obama changed his schedule so he could pay his respects at Dover Air Base as the fallen warriors’ remains were arriving from Afghanistan through Germany. We are told that he met with family members in what must be one of the most difficult duties of any president.
While these two events are six years apart, when I learned of the second one a flood of memories came back to me. At Bagram Airfield, the Fallen Warrior Ramp Ceremony was extraordinary given the number of warriors killed, and yet this later ceremony was probably the same. This time, though, there were two C-17 aircraft en route to Dover.
For those of us few civilians who have experienced these extraordinary events, the news is especially visceral and poignant. The names and faces of the fallen as well as their life stories are just beginning to be made public. They all look like they are the young man next door in our small towns or large cities.
The lives they led were, at a very early stage, set by the course of events – perhaps September 11, perhaps by family military tradition or perhaps one that is uniformly found in the military: serving our country, answering the call, dutifully following the commander’s intent and the completing the mission.
I do know this. Every time a warrior enters the battlespace in obedience of orders to complete the mission, he deeply knows that it is peace that is the ultimate mission. He prays for peace from that inner place that is a sanctum for the yearning of life.
In these recent years of expeditionary work, they tell me the desire for a peaceful outcome is what they seek. And if that means the bullies and tyrants and despots and truly wicked people of the world are part of the mission, then the greater good of humanity is served.
I have often written that in composing an authentic life, we do so by bringing meaning to our lives by raising the bar of humanity ever so slightly higher. We seek to leave this world just a little better than we found it.
I am absolutely convinced that the warriors that serve in war zones and those that support them here in the U.S., or wherever their family and friends are, know the great struggle underway to find peaceful resolution to the problems of the world.
But for those in uniform, they also know that solving these problems cannot always be done diplomatically or politically. And so, in the darkness of night with the tools of battle, these men and women walk up that ramp to a Chinook or another kind of personnel carrier, on land, in or on the sea and in the air, and engage the enemy with the determination and discipline that will make the world a better place for their service.
Let me end with this. One of my high school classmates of 40 years ago, Vicki Scranton Poppin, has a photograph of her son, CPT Nicholas Poppin, arriving home from Iraq having completed a tour of duty there. I do not know him. But the smile on his face, his arms around his mother, is exactly as it should be … the world is a better place.
Such events are found every day when warriors return home. The great sacrifice of a grateful nation is also found at Dover Air Base upon the opening of the cargo doors of C-17 aircraft for a fallen warrior. There, draped in the Stars and Stripes, an entire nation will hug them. PD
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