A Young Army Soldier Shares His “Memorial Daze”

WUSF Intern Alex Cook served five years in the Army including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

BY ALEX COOK

I stumble into the TOC (Tactical Operations Center), rip my helmet off my sweaty head and clumsily dump my camera bag and tripod on the floor.  I stand in the doorway for a few seconds, my chest heaving underneath my armor as I try to catch my breath.  A familiar face scowls at me from the TOC guard desk.  Tonight is supposed to be my shift, and I’m late.  He reminds me of this.  I assure him that I know, and I scoop up my equipment to return to the office down the hall.  When I rip off my body armor I feel the chill of air conditioning against my sweat-drenched clothes and skin.  I stand alone in the office for a minute or two, enjoying the feeling.   I grab my rifle and walk back out to the guard desk.  He tells me I’d better be ready to take half his shift tomorrow.  Ok, I say.  He asks if I can knock on his door before PT in the morning.  Sure, I reply.  Finally he leaves.  I brush aside the Sudoku and crossword puzzle books on the table, cross my arms, and stare at the wall.  The internet room behind me has a few people in it, but otherwise the TOC’s entryway is empty.  I know exactly how to pass the two hours left on the guard shift.  I zone out, sitting alertly and staring straight ahead, but my mind is somewhere else.  I can’t stop seeing the dead soldier’s face.

The chapel was already packed with reverent soldiers by the time I showed up with the Colonel’s entourage.  The Colonel and Sergeant Major were whisked away to their front row seats, and the chaplain found some hands to shake.  I dropped my helmet and body armor and plunged headlong into the sea of camouflage.  My rifle dangled uselessly behind me, swaying and smacking my back with each step. I clutched my camera bag and tripod awkwardly in front of me of me as I pushed through dozens of identical backs.  I found my spot across from the podium just as a different chaplain stepped up to the mic to announce that the ceremony was about to begin.  I ripped my tripod from its bag and desperately twisted at its legs, determined to miss no more than a few seconds of the ceremony.  By the time I slapped my camera on and hit record, the National Anthem had already begun.  I slowly zoomed out from the American flag and panned across the faces of the crowd as they stood at attention.  The chaplain offered an opening prayer.

This was the second memorial ceremony I’d been to this week.  When anyone in the brigade died, soldiers gathered in a chapel, tent, or gravel pit to honor them.  All memorials, no matter where they were held, were attended by the four same people every time: the Colonel, the Sergeant Major, the chaplain, and me.  I knew exactly what the battalion commander would say about the dead soldier’s heroism before I’d even adjusted the frame to his height.  The speeches were pretty straight forward.  He called the insurgents a “cowardly and craven enemy,” which was kind of his catchphrase during these things.  I knew the routine: I kept my shot on the podium and began panicking about my tapes.  I’d been reusing them, taping over stuff multiple times, choosing on the fly what was worth saving and what wasn’t.  I’d try to time the tape switch to happen between speeches, and hopefully not miss any of the ceremony.

After the battalion commander’s speech, I adjusted the frame for the height of the dead soldier’s company commander.  His speech was a little more personal, as he actually knew the guy, but it was still full of officer-speak about heroism and valor.  Next came the platoon sergeant, and finally we got to hear about what kind of man the dead soldier was, other than a heroic patriot.  He served as an example to the others.  He spoke of his wife and kids constantly.  He could always be depended on.  He was a bit of a jokester.  The platoon sergeant’s voice cracked a little as he finished his speech.

I steeled myself as a sunburned specialist in a dirty uniform shakily laid a wrinkled sheet of paper on the podium in front of him.  The dead soldier’s battle buddy: this was going to be brutal.   I adjusted the frame to his height.  The young specialist had lived, worked, and fought beside the dead soldier.  He talked about how the dead soldier always looked out for everyone.  He remembered hanging out with him and his family back at Fort Campbell and some of the crazy things they’d done in country.  He couldn’t finish his speech.  He broke down sobbing.  I zoomed out to catch the platoon sergeant walking up to place his hand on the young man’s shoulder.  The specialist apologized through his tears.  He choked out that he’d miss his buddy more than words can ever say and was helped back to his seat.  The chaplain returned to the podium.  I adjusted the frame for his height.

I glanced at my timecode and winced. Time to switch tapes.  I slapped eject and raised my next tape, labeled “kid supply drop,” in my other hand.  The chaplain announced the inevitable photo slideshow honoring the dead soldier as the tape finally popped out.  I ripped it from the deck, slammed in the new one, and smacked the deck shut just as the first sad notes of a Christian rock song echoed around me.  A projector flicked to life and his face appeared on a screen right in front of me.

My knees buckled.   I stumbled drunkenly, my legs forgetting how to stay straight.   I lost my head in a noisy fog.  I wretched, choking down some vomit, and tried to steady myself with my tripod.  I willed myself not to pass out.  Dizzy and disoriented, I swung my camera toward the screen, hit record, and slumped against the wall.  My rifle dug into my side.  Christian rock vibrated in my skull, and the slide show slowly dissolved between pictures of the dead soldier.  It was a face I recognized.  I’d just seen him last week.

A door swings open to my left, ripping me from my trance.  My dazed gazing has made an hour of my guard shift disappear.  It’s interrupted by a night shift NCO stepping purposefully from the communications office.  He announces that the FOB (Forward Operating Base) I had just flown back from was hit by mortar fire.  It killed a soldier who had been asleep in his bunk.  As always, we’re on communications blackout until the family is informed.  He shoos everyone out of the internet room and shuts its doors.

I wonder when the ceremony will be; I’m already supposed to fly to one for a different battalion’s dead soldier tomorrow.  I don’t want to edit the one I just shot.  The noisy fog thickens around my head again.  I reluctantly picture the dead soldier’s face.  The first time I’d seen that face, it was alive.

I’d been riding in the backseat of a humvee during a routine patrol.  There hadn’t been much worth shooting video of.  I pointed my camera out the dirt-caked armored window at the goats wading through open sewage in the street to gnaw on garbage, at wiry grubby children playing soccer in a field of mud and rubble, and at the bizarre cacophony of downtown Baghdad traffic.  I heard an explosion in the distance.  The humvee’s radio crackled to life: the company’s other convoy was hit by a roadside bomb.

By the time we got there, we knew that a vehicle was totaled but that no one was killed or badly wounded.   We pulled up to a smoking crater where a few soldiers were trying to hook a tow rig to the smoldering shell of a humvee.   I hopped out dutifully and strode toward the scene with my camera at the ready.  I got a few shots of the scene from different angles, unsure what I’d ever be able to use them for.  I asked around to see if anyone would tell me on camera what happened. Without an interview, my footage was worthless.  No one ever wanted to do an interview.   The soldiers gave me the usual scowls and suggestions of who I should try to talk to.

One soldier stepped away from the small crowd around the ruined humvee and greeted me with a warm smile.  He didn’t mind talking to me for a minute.  He’d been in the vehicle that was hit: two tiny bits of shrapnel were embedded in his face and his neck guard was soaked in blood, but he was calm, collected, and kind.  He talked about the explosion, not his first.  He said it’s important that they get back to work.  He believed he was serving the American people and the Iraqi people.  He knew that what he did helped make the world better and safer.  His calm smile made me want to smile, despite the heat and the scene of destruction behind him.  He exuded sincerity and decency.   He pointed to the shrapnel in his face and joked that now he had “cool guy wounds.”  At the end of the interview, when I asked if there was anything else he wanted to say, he said hello to his wife and children back home.  I thanked him for being willing to talk to me.  I never saw him alive again.

I saw his face, though.  The slide show moved gradually from stills of the once not-dead soldier goofing around with his buddies in Iraq to pictures of him at a backyard barbecue at home, holding his small children.  I drew long, slow breaths and mopped cold sweat from my face with my sleeve.  If the slideshow had lasted another second, I’d have surely lost consciousness.  The music stopped just in time, but the silence that followed was no comfort.  I lurched at my camera.  All that was left was the last roll call, twenty-one gun salute, and Taps.  I got through them.

A clammy, shaky hand panned the camera back to center stage.  The chaplain announced that the ceremony was over, and the bagpipe introduction to Amazing Grace kicked in.  I grabbed the camera and tripod rig and clambered to my spot behind the display of the dead soldier’s boots, rifle, dog tags, and helmet.  The Colonel and Sergeant Major were the first to salute the display.  They took turns kneeling before it, gingerly held the dog tags for a few seconds, and marched from the chapel.  Other ranking officers followed, and finally the men who’d served with the dead soldier approached his memorial display in twos and threes.  I recognized them from the patrol the week before.

The military precision of the officers’ honors gave way to raw emotion.  They didn’t crisply salute and take turns kneeling.  They collapsed in front of their dead soldier’s display, arms on each other as they wept quietly.  They clutched his dog tags, tearful eyes gazing upward as they muttered muted prayers.  They left personal mementos at the toes of the dead soldier’s boots.  I thanked the distance that viewing it all through my tiny view screen provided.  I knew I was in danger of being left if I waited too long: the Colonel didn’t stick around after these things. I stayed until everyone in the dead soldier’s platoon had paid their honors.  I grabbed all my stuff and awkwardly slipped by the long line of those still waiting to salute and kneel.

My gear sat in a lonely pile at the back of the chapel.  I heaved it on and struggled with the velcro as I dragged myself through the chapel’s main door and into the dark night.  The humvees that had delivered us from the airfield were long gone.  I heard helicopters in the distance.  Panicked, I ran. It took me about ten minutes of fevered hustling to finally arrive at the airfield. I hobbled to where the Colonel, Sergeant Major, and chaplain stood.  The Colonel congratulated me for making it.  We waited a little over an hour for our helicopters to show up and fly me back, late, to my guard shift.

As the end of my shift nears, it becomes impossible to remain in my time-passing trance.  I check my watch twice a minute and fantasize about ripping off my uniform and collapsing in my bunk.  The communications blackout has ensured mercifully few interruptions, and it’s finally almost over, but I have one more encounter before I can call it a night.  I recognize his steps echoing down the hall behind me and swivel around to see the Colonel shuffling my way.

He isn’t in a hurry for once.  He stops at my guard desk, rubs his eyes, and asks what I’m still doing up.  I tell him my shift is almost over, and I ready myself to leap to my feet and call the TOC to attention the moment it looks like he’s actually going to leave for the night.  The old man stands over me silently for a moment.  He eyes the door, making me twitch.  He sighs and tells me that another soldier just died.  I nod.  He mentions that we’re going to a memorial ceremony tomorrow.  Yes sir.  He shuffles the books on my desk around a little bit.   I glance at my watch again, anxious.  I bravely meet the Colonel’s eyes for about a second.  I almost see something, but he shakes his head briskly and bolts for the door.   I leap to my feet.

“TOC, ten-SHUN!” I yell to nobody.

Alex Cook served five years in the Army and deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently a college student and a news intern at WUSF 89.7 FM.

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