Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Backs of heads, and a boots update

We had a memorial service for the three fallen heroes from Ghazni's sapper unit I mentioned in my last post. It is their job to clear the roads of IEDs so locals and NATO forces can travel safely. Their families have been notified, so I can tell you that they were casualties #3, 4 and 5 listed under Sep 28, 2011:

There were about 300 people there and only 100 seats, so my team stood in the back while the casualties' unit sat in front. These were the people who worked with them everyday; I was acquainted with only one of them- he came in to our clinic to have his chin stitched up three days before his death. I tried to imagine how hard it must be for those who knew them so well.

So I watched this unit of sappers as they paid respects to their brothers. Because I couldn't see their faces, I noticed the backs of their heads. Most had a distinct sunburn where their hat brim ended. I imagined them spending long days in the sun carefully inspecting every suspicious piece of debris on the road. I felt guilt that they do this every day for 12-15 months and I stay safe within the walls for a mere six months, but mostly I just felt admiration and appreciation.

Most of the heads where buzzcuts of brown and blond, but there were more than a few gray or balding. Many heads were in a respectful listening posture, but some sank under the weight of grief, and soon to be joined by a comrade's arm around the neck. Many scalps had scars from battle wounds, but some looked more like the emblems of a rowdy night at the bar.

I've come to appreciate the colorful pasts that bring people into the military. Because we have no chaplain, our Bible study is run by a 25-year old sapper who could probably out-bench and out-curse anyone else on base. He was quoting Ephesians to us Wednesday, and Thursday telling us about about getting shot at and calling in for air support to "smear those b*******s!!" There is also a crusty middle-age man who was an Army nurse for 23 years but is now a field medic. When I heard some gossip that he must have had his nursing license stripped I told them I didn't care, I'm glad he's here because he's the one who knew how to cut a hole in my patients neck so he could breathe. I'm an airway doctor and I've never done that! They seemed to catch my point.

But I've digressed from the memorial service. I heard an officer give an eloquent and touching speech, working in scriptures and expressing faith in the resurrection through Jesus (it is still safe to express religion in the military). Even more touching was the sergeant who told a story about going to their favorite "fishin' hole" together, and how it won't be the same. Another told a story about how one of the soldiers had helped him build a playhouse for his kids. Apparently he started by throwing a tool and yelling "this hammer is s***!" Yes, there were some laughs at the funeral, too, such as when they played "Gangster's Paradise" as the background to the tribute photos. Wish I knew the back story on that one...

The most difficult part for me was the roll call. The First Sergeant called the name of a few unit members, answered in traditional military sound-off with a bellowing "Here, First Sergeant!" Afterwards, he calls the names of the fallen:

"Private First Class Drake?"


"Private First Class David Drake?"


"Private First Class David Andrew Drake?"

silence, and then a gun salute accentuated the absence even more.

We had to leave the service early to take care of more casualties coming in, but it was a powerful experience for me. Especially when they prayed for the other member of their unit, about whom I wrote on my last post.

And I'd like you all to know that he left on a plane to the States today. He had to have part of his skull removed to give room for his damaged, swollen brain, and he may never wake up. However, his family will get to see him.

I have cleaned most of the blood from my boots. They are covered with dust, like everything else, and now I think I'm the only one that knows about the stains on them. But they are ready to run to the aid of the next wounded soldier.


Becky said...

Wow, thanks for sharing this. It's amazing how much more real the war seems when you actually see pictures and faces of these brave people and know that they are parents, and friends and sons and daughters like all of us. I love the tribute to them.

Kathy said...

I agree with Becky. It's a beautiful tribute to these brave ones. Thanks for including the pictures; they are so young. . . It's poignant to read about the service that was held. It made me more aware of how their fellow soldiers are grieving as well as their families. The war seems terribly close now.

jbel said...

Hey Matt, before Drew was deployed he got set apart by our stake presidency to be essentially a chaplain. So he led the Sunday service at his base while in Afghanistan. I don't know if it's something you'd be interested in, and I don't know if you can get the card that he had now while you're already there. But, I'd be happy to inquire here about it if you'd like.

The Kids