“Also on Saturday, a U.S. soldier was killed during an attack on an American patrol in Salaheddin province in northern Iraq, the U.S. military announced. It was only the third combat fatality suffered by U.S. forces in Iraq this month.”
This is an excerpt from a Reuters report dated Sunday March 8. The soldier’s death was the reason why our one + hour flight from Baghdad to Kuwait ended up taking four and one half hours.
I had been put on board a C-130 flight ten hours ahead of the one I had been scheduled to take. There was going to be a safety review of C-130s the next day, March 8, and the forecast was for dust storm, which can sometimes even ground a C-130, so the Air Ops office put me on board an 11pm flight ahead of the safety review and dust storm.
About one-half hour into the flight to Kuwait, the plane banked, and I suspected that we were being diverted. We found out 20 mins later that we were to land at Camp Spyker in Salah Ad-Din Province to pick up the coffin with the dead soldier mentioned in the article above.
After landing, the six passengers (it was an empty plane) and an equal number of the crew deboarded and formed a line leading away from the back tail door of the C-130. We stood there in the cold and dark, with a breeze that was as chilling as the moment came to be, for ten minutes. Then soldiers arrived and assembled in two rows facing one another, twenty five meters away from the plane. A few Colonels and Lietenant Colonels, one of them we later identified as the dead soldier’s commander, also lined up facing us at the back of the plane. These hardened Colonels in their 40s and early 50s, facing a handful contractors, State Dept personnel , and the plane’s crew, comprised an unusual honor guard, but it was a mix that represents the rainbow of personnel who are a part of the U.S. effort in Iraq.
After another five minutes, a vehicle resembling a large humvee very slowly drove out onto the tarmac and followed a soldier who led it in a slow walk across the tarmac, coming to a stop between the assembled soldiers away from the plane. They pulled out the coffin and with a soft half-step march that conveyed the somberness of the event, they carried the coffin between our two rows and onto the plane as everyone stood at silent attention. There the chaplain who had accompanied the coffin read The Lord’s Prayer. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil …”
As I listened I began to wonder: who was this soldier, whose death had somehow been connected to me? How did he die? What were his last thoughts? How old was he? How would his family — did he have one? — react to the news of his death, about which they most certainly had not yet been notified? What would I say to him if we could somehow talk? And then I focused on the soldiers present. All looked straight ahead, none into the plane where the chaplain stood over the coffin, as if the disciplined attention and salute was their gift of respect to a fallen comrade. The release of their salute seemed like everything had been put into slow motion, their hands inching downward like feathers floating faintly to the ground. Then the pallbearers walked down the ramp and a Colonel, the soldier’s brigade commander, walked up the ramp and knelt beside the coffin with his hand placed upon it. He had a hushed exchange with the chaplain, lingering on bended knee for what seemed a long time but was no more than a minute, before standing, giving a final salute and walking back down the ramp. There he was greeted by the other officers, a few with hugs. You could tell that this was not the first time they had been through this, but that it doesn’t get easier with repetition.
We reboarded the plane and flew to Kuwait City International Airport with the flag-draped coffin strapped down not far from me. C-130s are noisy planes for the passengers, but somehow the hold of the plane seemed still. In Kuwait, we enacted a similar ceremony but without a chaplain this time. A Sargeant Major, however, was there, and he issued instructions on proper salutes for soldiers and civilians (hands over the heart), making sure that the transfer would occur properly. It was clear that he, too, had had practice. He projected a sense of responsiblity that the fallen soldier would be given the respects he deserved, having given his life in service to his country. The coffin was brought down the ramp by a mix of soldiers from the Marines and Army, some were infantry others had MP patches. They all knew their roles and fulfilled them in transferring the coffin under floodlights in the pre-dawn hours to a vehicle for conveyance to another plane bound for the U.S. And so it was on the Kuwait City International Airport that we all parted ways with the coffin and dead solider.
We then took off for a 10 minute flight to the other side of Kuwait — a small country where the Ali Al-Salem Air Base is located, only to be driven 45 minutes back to the city to rest for 18 hours at the Crown Plaza in a lounge room packed with barcaloungers, on which I slept for four hours — the same amount of time that my flight from Baghdad to Kuwait had been delayed. I awoke around 11:30 and wondered about the whereabouts of the Slain Soldier of Salah Ad-Din.
Email I received from Kenneth on his way home from Iraq.
(UPDATE: Thank you, Mudville Gazette, for including Kenneth’s reflections.)