Today was another really big day over here in Afghanistan. I arrived at the office at 2pm and Ingrid informed me that there was a “ramp ceremony”, more formally known as a Fallen Hero Ceremony on the Flight line at 3pm to honor four soldiers from a unit we live with who had died in combat. Although we did not personally know them we decided to go as we have wanted to participate in these ceremonies since our arrival. The ceremony takes place on the flight line with much pomp and circumstance as the flag-draped caskets are presented and saluted while a band plays and the pall bearers, usually members of the same unit, carry the coffins onto the plane.
The day was exceptionally hot, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit/37 degrees Celsius. We were given pretty poor directions to the flight line and what could have been a 5 min drive and a short walk to the flight line turned into a mile walk in the wicked heat and our thick, cumbersome military uniforms. I was already thirsty on the walk over and in hindsight I should have paid more attention to this. By the time we got to Delta Ramp we were halfway down the air field and drenched in sweat. We found ourselves over an hour early for the ceremony so we stayed in the shade as much as possible and chatted to the others gathered for the ceremony. About 30 min later we assembled in formation in preparation for the ceremony. One of the members of the color guard, the soldiers who create a walkway to the plane, fainted after standing out in the sun for about 30 min waiting for the ceremony to start.
We stood in formation for 20-30 min before the ceremony got underway, but sadly by this point I was done for. The band started playing and we snapped to attention as 4 Humvees with the caskets back loaded approached the General. The first time we – the visitors on the flight line - saluted the caskets my vision started spinning and I started seeing stars. I was furious with myself at this point, not wanting to disrupt the ceremony and be disrespectful by dropping out of formation, so I told myself to man up and hang in there. I managed to rally for a few minutes before we saluted a second time, my chin dropped to my chest, I felt like I was going to vomit and I was certain I was going to faint which I decided would be a 1,000 times worse than to just step out of formation. I whispered to Ingrid I was going to faint and with the last of the consciousness I had made it over to the airport hanger and dropped to the ground where a Medic came over and gave me a bottle of water. I was somewhat relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one who was with the Medics.
I felt a bit better after drinking half the bottle and I managed to stand up again and at attention while the caskets where loaded onto the plane, but I only stayed up for a minute or two before I thought I was going to drop again. Overall, I was angry with myself for missing the ceremony and I felt like I was disrespecting the fallen, but I was also completely overwhelmed by the whole experience. Many people in the crowd were crying and I found myself close to tears several times and I had never even met these soldiers - and never would which I think was the larger reality. I have never witnessed a celebration representing the honor and dignity and sacrifice of an untimely death. Standing on the flight line with the Hindu Kush Mountains guarding the base and the fighter jets taking off in the background and the military band playing against the drone of the plane engines, it was impossible not to recognize there are few times in a person’s life when they have the chance to be a part of something so… for better or for worse … profound.