I remember that it was a peaceful sleep. That part of sleep where you hear the sounds around you, but they just drift into your dreams. Somewhere in the distance there was a long, wailing sound. The sound was continuous, and it was waking me up, but it wasn't my alarm clock. It was, ...a siren? Why is the alert siren sounding? It was the Fall of 1994, a Sunday morning, and I was stationed at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of South Korea. Kim Jong-Il had assumed power in North Korea only a few weeks earlier making that country even more unstable than usual. Because of my job, I knew when base war exercises were held, and I was not aware of a practice alert being scheduled for a Sunday morning. If this wasn't a practice alert, I thought, it could only mean one thing. We were at war.
Our orders if the unthinkable happened were simple. No time to shower or shave. Get dressed, don your war gear, and get to your pre-assigned post. I knew the number of minutes it would take for North Korea's missiles and jet fighters to reach us and time was not on our side. Strapping on my flak vest and web gear, I paused just a few seconds to kneel beside my bed and pray. For those few seconds, I didn't pray for victory nor even for my own survival. My prayer was simply this: if things went badly, that they would find enough pieces of me to send home to my family. To my sudden surprise, I found myself choking back a few tears. I put on my helmet, and ran to my post.
Fortunately in our case, it was an exercise that day. The wing commander wanted to gauge the readiness of the base on the weekend, hence the alert. I relive this story in this space in order to spotlight, however clumsily, the vivid and personal emotions that the warrior grapples with in moments of peril.
Today at Battalion Airfield in Afghanistan, General McChrystal led approximately 400 troops in a Memorial Day ceremony honoring their fallen colleagues. Meanwhile, here in Panama City, FL, Kent Forest Lawn Cemetery, the military section was decorated with American flags as veterans and their families attended a ceremony to honor the those who paid the ultimate price. We were surrounded by members of the Patriot Guard, who stood between the ceremony and the main street, each member holding a flag. Members of various veterans organizations marched to the memorial in the cemetery and saluted our fallen brothers and sisters in arms. One old gentleman wore his Army uniform and marched to the memorial. His spine stiffened as he stood as tall as possible and rendered as sharp a salute as I've seen from many active duty folks. Then he executed an "about face," and forgot what he was supposed to do next. So, he stood there at attention, ...for awhile. A long while. Finally, he understood the signal to march away from the memorial. I leaned over to my son and said, "He's just a little confused.' Being from the south, I added, "Bless his heart." I thought better of it and added, "Bless his brave heart."
The commander from the nearby military base spoke and reminded us all of the sacrifice made on our behalf. As if speaking to my experience at Kunsan, he added, "Sometimes our folks never saw it coming." Think the USS Cole, or the Pentagon on 9/11.
And people like me are left wondering why we made it home while so many of our betters didn't. After the 21 gun salute, after Taps, after the F-15 fly-over, I walked,to the memorial. I thought of our fallen, their voices forever silenced, and was briefly overcome with emotion. My renewed promise is to do my best to be worthy of their sacrifice. To be worthy of the sacrifice of their families, for whom the fire of the guns, the sound of taps cuts to their very soul. I'm thankful for all of them. Bless all of their very, very brave hearts.