Saturday, May 27, 2017

I'll carry you home...

I try to keep this blog strictly horse-related, so please forgive the vicious departure from our normal programming.  I just don't have another vehicle to use to get this all out there.  So here it is.

Dignified Transfer at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware
Memorial Day 2017 is upon us.  This generally a well-celebrated long weekend for most Americans, who will spend it (rightfully so) out on the lake, barbecuing, grilling burgers and hot dogs, and celebrating the unofficial start of summer.  Some remember what Memorial Day means.  Some say a prayer, some go out of their way to be overly serious about it, to the point of ruining everyone else's fun.  Don't be that guy.  Don't ruin everyone else's fun.  I'm not trying to be that guy.  But it is not a fun weekend for me, especially this year.

I don't "do" death.  It's an incredibly emotional topic that for some reason seems to wreak more havoc on me than the average person.  Just know that, it'll make everything easier to understand.  I'm chuckling at myself as I write that, so you know.

In 2015, I served six months at the Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, where I processed the personal effects of our fallen service members and returned them to their families.  My daily business was death.  I hated to be bored, but in that don't want to be busy.  Because every day you were busy, a family was going through the worst days of their lives.  In some cases, after studying the service member's personal effects, letters, etc...I knew them more intimately than their immediate family.  It was the job.

 One particularly bad day came after we received helicopter crash victims, and I had to assist with inventory of the personal effects and gear the deceased were wearing at the time of the crash. The smell of sea water and decay is a unique combination that you never really forget. Gear was shredded, dummy rifles made of steel rebar were twisted like pretzels. Seeing the flight helmets crushed like Styrofoam cups gave a shocking illustration of the violence of the crash. Your stomach turned when you realized that human beings were wearing those helmets.

And at the end of my tour at Dover, I broke down in my room and cried uncontrollably.   But when it was all said and done...I'd leap at the chance to do it again.  It was the single-most important thing I've ever done in my Air Force career.  Even after I left to return to my home station, I carried those individuals with me.  I couldn't bury them.  I couldn't let them go.  I saw their names, their faces, their hand written letters, the photos of their families, the suicide letters, the blood-stained gear that shipped in from theater...I carried that with me for a year or more.

In May 2016, I attended an immersion courtesy of our United States Air Force Honor Guard, where a select number of National Capital Region personnel got to experience the daily "behind the scenes" of the USAFHG's operation at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC).  Part of the immersion was to witness a full honors funeral.  The gentleman they buried was retired, had lived a full life and we all paid our respects from a distance.  But I wasn't there for him that day.  I was burying the dozens of individuals I had been carrying with me for so long.

I was also burying Captain Jonathan "JJ" Golden, a classmate of mine at Officer Training School, who had died in the 2 October 2015 C-130J crash in Afghanistan.  He is buried in Texas.  Three of his fellow TORQE 62 crew members were buried in Arlington.  But following that caisson that day in May, through a mile or more of hallowed Arlington ground, seeing the full Honor Guard and Ceremonial Band procession, listening to Taps play...this was for JJ. It was for all the men I got to know after their untimely death during my service at Dover.  I saluted and held that salute, motionless, while tears streamed down my face.  And just when I felt I had the composure back, the bagpiper played and I wept again.

That was one year ago. This year should have been easier, but it wasn't.  In June 2016, I learned that an Air Force colleague of mine, a close hockey buddy from our time in Omaha, Nebraska, had committed suicide.  His hockey and military friends have all struggled to come to grips with it.  We hurt, deeply.  We're still hurting. My involvement in the Army/Navy hockey game back in December was because I wanted to honor his memory.  And when the United States Army Chief of Staff (highest ranking member of the Army) gave me MVP, I looked up and thanked my buddy Pete.  At the end of the game, I wrangled a photographer, because the only thing I really wanted out of all this was a photograph of my goal mask on National Hockey League center ice, with Pete's number on the backplate.  Everything else was a gift from Pete himself.

....All that is backstory to today.  I have been dreading this Memorial Day.  I want people to go outside and party, and enjoy it.  Live.  Have fun.  But me...can't say I was celebrating much of anything.  I was going to let it pass by, just taking the time to sleep in and spend extra time at the barn.  But yesterday afternoon I found myself buying flowers....lots of flowers...and making plans to visit Arlington first thing in the morning.  I needed to.

I rolled into Ft Myer and through the north gate to the Cemetery at exactly 0800 this morning.  I was completely alone as I walked through Arlington, and I paused to take a photo.  Coming in via the base is so much more preferable to me than the crowded visitor's center, which is crawling with tourists.  As I walked through the quiet north side by myself, the only noises were the gentle breeze and the birds chirping - it felt like a cemetery, and not a travel destination.  I prefer it that way.  I've always loved Arlington; something about it has always spoken to me, and I've been drawn to its peaceful, beautiful landscape for many years.  But my time at Dover, and now having had lost friends, has changed it for me.  Made it even more important.  Reverent. Real.

I carried four bouquets of flowers.  One was for a friend's father, who is buried in the Columbarium.  The other three were for the members of TORQE 62:  Captain Jordan Pierson, Staff Sergeant Ryan Hammond, and Senior Airman Quinn Johnson-Harris.  My classmate JJ's crew.  These men were with him when he died.  And while I couldn't say goodbye to JJ directly, I hoped maybe they'd pass a message along for me.

After winding my way down through ANC, and helping some folks find their loved one's gravesite, I finally was able to look for JJ's crew in Section 60.  I found Jordan's gravesite first.  He was the other pilot on the plane that day.  I didn't know Jordan.  I won't even sit here and pretend that I was even close with JJ; he and I were classmates years ago, worked together a little bit during OTS, and were probably Facebook friends for a little while afterward.  That's it.  But I knew him, and he knew me, and when you hear a familiar name involved with a deadly crash, the feeling is indescribable.

I gently placed the other three bouquets on the ground and placed one at the side of Jordan's headstone.  Someone had left flowers and a bottle.  I knelt in front of his grave, carefully reading the inscription on the headstone and just was silent for a bit.  I didn't know what to say.  It took a second for me to feel comfortable saying anything to a complete stranger.

I said I was sorry.  I paused, pulled a coin out of my pocket, and as I reached up to place it on top of the headstone, I asked Jordan to say hi to JJ for me.  And that's when I couldn't hold it back any longer.  It didn't matter that I didn't know any of these crew members.  It didn't matter that I didn't even know JJ that well.  I knelt there in full service dress uniform, clinging to Jordan's headstone for dear life, and wept.

You're not supposed to know people in plane crashes.  Your friends aren't supposed to commit suicide.  You're not supposed to see the damage of a sniper's bullet, and aftermath of war.  You're not supposed to read suicide notes from deployed fathers telling their wife and children back home that they're better off without him.  You don't know who wrote those rules or when; you just know it's not supposed to happen that way.  

I allowed myself to remain there, crying, for some time, still holding on to Jordan's headstone.  It was probably only a minute or two, but it felt like forever.  After I regained my composure, I stood, squared up, and slowly saluted him.  I moved slowly down the row to SSgt Hammond's gravesite and repeated the same procedure for him and SrA Johnson-Harris, not rushing anything.  I knelt, read each headstone, carefully placed each set of flowers and a coin, said a few words, and saluted.  I think I even cracked a joke before I left.  By the end, I felt like I had made some new acquaintances, and while I was sad to have to leave, I don't think this will be the last time I see them.  They give me three good reasons to visit more often...four, really.

I left Section 60 and made my way to the Columbarium to place flowers for my friend's dad.  This was special to me as well, because I initially assisted her in getting him inurned at Arlington.  I wasn't able to attend his ceremony last summer, but I was happy to get the chance to stop by and say hello today.  I placed a coin on his niche and the flowers at the base of the column.

I was done.  I had placed all my flowers, left all my coins.  Paid my respects to everyone I came to see.  There was this mixed feeling of never wanting to leave, and the need to get ahead of the pending rain.  I took my time as I walked back toward the north gate, and as I passed by Section 60 once again, I made sure to look back down the row at the TORQE 62 crew and give them another nod.  I'll see you boys again.

As I made my way back up, I had several experiences that renewed my faith in people; a faith I've lost being in the D.C. area, with its constant hustle and dog-eat-dog mentality.  But Arlington isn't that place.  People are good within its walls.  People have a grip on reality, perspective, and decency.  One older gentleman pulled up beside me in his sedan and offered me a lift to wherever I was going.  I graciously thanked him and declined, as I needed the time to walk and think.  As I neared the Tomb of the Unknowns, I stopped to see the changing of the guard from the side of the complex.  I stood behind the crowd at parade rest, trying not to be noticed and just observe.  I've seen the ceremony many times, but it never gets old.

Photo from a previous visit to Arlington

Once the ceremony concluded, several people turned and quietly thanked me and offered a handshake.  I was not there for recognition, but I will never complain about people being gracious.  There were hundreds of Patriot Guard Riders there today.  I love these people and all they do.  Most are veterans.  All have a deep appreciation for those who have served, especially those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.  It made me happy to see them, to shake their hands, to hear them say "thank you," and for me to thank them in return.  I enjoyed striking up conversations with them.  We smiled and laughed.  It made my heart happy. 

The rides of the Patriot Guard Riders

I thought of my friend, Pete, as I walked out.  The rest of the walk out was just appreciating Arlington, its beauty, and the sacrifice of so many who are laid to rest there.  I love this place more deeply than any other, for reasons more personal than words can express.  This Memorial Day weekend, go out and live.  Laugh.  Have fun.  Party.  It is not a funeral - we have too many of those.  But as you celebrate, please remember what the long weekend is really for.  It's for those who didn't come home.  For those that I carried with me, and continue to carry with me.  Think of their families, and say a prayer.  And then go on living your life.

Honor the Fallen...

Jonathan "JJ" Golden, 2 Nov 1981 - 2 Oct 2015

As strong as you were, tender you go
I'm watching you breathing for the last time
A song for your heart, but when it is quiet
I know what it means and I'll carry you home
I'll carry you home...
(James Blunt, Carry You Home)

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