Afghanistan: Visual Cues to Sending a Fallen Soldier Home

Like so many communities have done thousands of times before – Tampa Bay will welcome home a fallen soldier. Army Spc. Brittany Gordon’s remains arrive Wednesday at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida.

Yet, few know what it’s like at the other end – in Afghanistan. What do the soldiers experience when sending home a fallen colleague.

My thanks to Tony Schwalm for sharing his observations. He is a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Special Forces currently assigned as an Army civilian to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan and author of The Guerrilla Factory.

A Journal Entry from Afghanistan

Tonight, due to a torn calf muscle, I am missing the institutional response to what is now a common signal on the camp where I live in Afghanistan. In the center of the camp, which is defined by a line of razor wire and blast walls within a larger perimeter of razor wires and blast walls that encapsulates the adjacent airfield, stands a row of flag poles representing the nations who hunt and kill Taliban alongside the US.

As it is a US camp, the US flag is first. Without warning and I have never seen who does it, the flag is at half-staff and remains there for 24 hours when a special operations soldier dies.

Due to the connectivity of the world in which we live and kill each other and the chance that a social media site will announce the death to an unsuspecting family member, no one is given the name until the next of kin is notified in the US.

As I was limping back to my office, I saw the flag at half-staff and most of the task force was walking down to the airfield. They will stand at attention in a rectangle of a few hundred people while a truck with flag-draped coffins slowly passes in front of them and stops at an honor guard.

Photo courtesy of author Tony Schwalm, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Special Forces and veteran of multiple combat deployments around the world.

Sending the Fallen Home

On cue, a small ensemble of horns from an army band will play, not Taps, but a baleful tune, nameless but emotionally grinding. The pallbearers will march to the back of the truck, turn in unison to face each other in two rows and begin extracting the coffin in exactly four pulls, each pull bringing it to the next pair of waiting hands.

With not quite the precision of guards at the Tomb of the Unknown, the teams carrying the coffins are made up of men who are themselves facing the same dangers as the men they carry did — drill and ceremony is not their strong suit.

Because word travels among the ranks as fast as it ever did, they may know who they are carrying, but probably not.

They will carry the coffins up the ramp of a C-130 aircraft while the hundreds of strangers salute in the dark in tribute to the unknown dead. Once the coffins are secured inside the plane, a command sergeant major will bark, “Dismissed,” and the formation will dissolve into dozens of conversations thought of while watching the pageant unfold.

The Flashing Red Light

These events are always presaged by another visual cue.

In our headquarters, sequestered from the mind-numbing poverty and threat of instant oblivion by hidden bombs the special ops teams endure every day, we have a red light mounted in the ceiling. When the red light is flashing, someone in our group somewhere in the country is fighting the Taliban.

Today, it flashed all day. Sometime, while I was eating, the light stopped flashing.

And the flag went to half-staff.

The ceremony is concluded as I finish this note.

Tony Schwalm is a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Special Forces (a.k.a. the Green Berets). A veteran of multiple combat deployments around the world, he is currently assigned to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan as a Department of the Army Civilian leading a group of social scientists supporting special operation forces in that war-torn country.

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