The words echoed across the tarmac. First in English, then in Romanian. The darkness hid the source in such a way that it seemed as if the night itself were delivering the orders.
“Attention!” The word was drawn out, somehow emphasizing each individual syllable.
In unison, everyone in the formation delivered the ceremonial salute, right hands moving slowly to the brow with the hand becoming a knife’s edge, taking three full seconds to make the trip.
I didn’t know him. This was the first such ceremony my unit had been called upon to perform. No more rehearsals. We were sending a Soldier on his last trip home. Home to his wife. Home to his one year old daughter. There is no way to be unaffected by the sight of it all.
His brothers in arms silently carry him toward the plane. His casket draped in the colors of Romania, but somehow in this moment nationality is at once everything and nothing. We are all Romanians and they are all Americans.
We just had a BBQ in the Romanian compound. Maybe I was next to him in line. Perhaps I sat by him at the table as we ate. Less than 48 hours later, he was out on a mission, his unit was attacked and he died of his wounds. Part of their mission is what we call force protection. In other words, part of his mission was protecting ME. It is likely selfish to consider myself at all in this moment or to search for some connection. I couldn’t share the emotion that was so evident amongst the troops with whom he served. They knew him. He was theirs, but reality, mortality and perspective tend to strike hard in these moments.
While he was on patrol, I was likely busy doing a completely unimportant legal review of an event that no one will remember. I remember a line from Saving Private Ryan in which CPT Miller says to PVT Ryan: “Earn this.” As I watch this Soldier’s casket pass by me, I can’t help but wonder: Is there anything I’m ever going to do that would make these poor people think that I “earned” the absence of their husband, father, son, brother, or friend? I think not. He didn’t know me. He wasn’t thinking of me. Nonetheless, we are bonded now he and I. I don’t think I can ever forget him. A Romanian Soldier unknown to me, but forever remembered.
I find myself challenged spiritually as well. The thought almost unavoidable in the face of such sacrifice. When Christ died, he WAS thinking of me (and you). He knew I couldn't earn it. He did it anyway. What have I really done about that?
The last strains of taps disappear in to the darkness. A final ceremonial salute. A Soldier's thank you.
“Dismissed.” Now to find a way to earn it.