Thursday, October 19, 2006

When Warriors Weep

When Warriors Weep

I went to the memorial service last week for a young Marine killed by a sniper while working to make life better for Iraqis in a little poop-water town in western Iraq. This was my third service since I arrived six weeks ago. Each one has been stark in its raw emotion; each a farewell to a warrior from warriors. But this one touched me very deeply, even though I did not know him.

The Regimental Commander, Command Master Chief and I flew to Al Taqqadum from Fallujah to attend, arriving the day before. The fallen Marine was from one of our subordinate units, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, commanded by a friend of mine. The service itself was to be held at 5pm, to enable many of the young man’s comrades to attend. Through their grief, the young men of Bravo Co., carried on the difficult mission at hand, only stopping long enough to pay tribute to their brother Marine.

The “chapel” is a low slung building of small metal tubing and plywood walls with homemade wooden benches and cheap plastic chairs. As we arrived I wondered where everyone was, there was nobody milling about outside. When we entered, I understood. Jammed into every space possible were several hundred Marines and sailors, sweating profusely in silence.

Many in attendance were covered in dirt and grime, some still in flaks and helmets. They were overwhelmingly young men and women in their late teens and early twenties; yet they did not look young. Bravo Co. is a reserve outfit based in South Bend, so many of these Marines had grown up together. At the front of the chapel was the traditional symbol of rifle, bayonet, helmet and dog tags and next to the tribute was a large picture of a smiling young man, framed by an American and Marine Corps flag.

“Chaps”, as the battalion chaplain is called began the service with an appropriate invocation. Then the lights were dimmed and a video tribute came on. The melancholy notes of Green Day’s “When September Comes” drifted across the chapel as picture after picture gave us a sense of who this young man had been in life. There were the typical pictures of a young man at war, but mostly, there were pictures of an engaging young man with all-American looks and a huge smile. Then quite abruptly there appeared a video clip of the Marine doing the “Duck Dance” with one of his buds as his friends laughed, taken only days before his death. That stupid dance you see at wedding receptions, which never fails to look absurd, shook me. For that moment he was still alive and through the sniffles I heard chuckles in the crowd.

Then my mind drifted back a couple of weeks to when I found out Cpl. Aaron Seal had been killed. Initially, details were sketchy, but Cpl. Seal was a combat engineer and had been shot while working on the roof of what would become an Iraqi police station. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday when the report first came in and my thoughts immediately went to his family. Somewhere back home in Indiana they were just getting up on a Sunday morning, probably doing Sunday morning things like reading the paper and getting ready for church. They were probably thinking of their young man at war and praying for his safety not knowing what I knew; Aaron was already dead. Soon enough, two Marines would show up at their door in dress blues and change their lives forever.

My thoughts returned to the service as the montage ended and three of his friends spoke in tribute. They were tough, hardened men who openly wept as they recalled beers drank, fights fought, and dreams dreamt. The last Marine read a poem called “Ode to a Marine” which Aaron’s girlfriend had requested to be read at the ceremony. One stanza stuck in my mind:

…Yes, he has chosen to live a life
Off the beaten track,
Knowing well each time he’s called,
He might not make it back.
So, next time you see a Devil Dog
Standing proud and true,
Be grateful for all he’s given;
He’s given it for you…

- Jeannie Salinski

Tributes over, muster was called one last time, …“Corporal Aaron Seal”… a Marine read aloud, waiting a response we knew would not come. We rose to attention as seven Marines outside fired a 21 gun salute in crisp precision, followed by Taps.

The service ended with a benediction from Chaps and then one by one we each approached the rifle and helmet of Cpl. Seal to pay our last respects. Colonels to private, there was no rank now, only Americans. Some knelt and softly touched the boots, others placed their hands on the helmet, most stood in silent thought and prayer.

Having been one of the first to pay our respects, the Commodore and I stood outside the chapel as the other Marines exited in silence. Some gathered in small groups while others stood by themselves and wept, only to soon be embraced by a fellow Marine. Many smoked cigarettes in nervous silence with swollen red eyes, and yet others laughed at memories shared quietly among friends. But, this was not our time and I tried to look away. This was the real farewell.

At the time of his death, Cpl. Seal was just 23 and left behind a beautiful girlfriend and loving family. I did not know Aaron but I will never forget him.