16-17 January 2008 (ON PATROL)

MISSION: 1st Platoon executes nighttime dismounted patrol vicinity village of 14th Ramadan, in order to assess CLC posture and readiness as well as village conditions during hours of darkness.

After grabbing a bit of dinner at the Camp Taji chow hall, we all headed back to our living area to get our gear on and make final preparations for a night patrol through 14th Ramadan.

In the room, I told Leo that I had been thinking about this patrol, and I had a weird feeling about it. “I don’t think we’re gonna get blown up or anything, but I’ve got a feeling that something is going to happen,” I told him.

As we tossed the essentials into our assault packs and double checked our gear, I attached an infrared (IR) strobe light to my vest, and threw extra batteries, chem lights, and even a VS-17 signal panel into my bag. I pulled apart my M4 and my 9mm pistol and wiped the moving parts down with a light coat of oil before reassembling everything.

Leo peaked around the corner of his locker in our room with an eyebrow raised. “You really are worried about this patrol, huh?” he said.

“Yeah, man. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had this fucked up feeling all day,” I replied.

I lifted my body armor and slid my head through the hole at the top, then wrapped the side panels around my abdomen, securing the Velcro strips that hold it all together. Bouncing up and down a couple of times, I shrugged my shoulders and pulled at the collar, adjusting to the wait and making everything as comfortable as possible. I threw my assault pack over one shoulder, grabbed my helmet and rifle, and headed out the door.

As I walked toward our vehicle staging area, I knocked on my soldiers’ doors. “2nd Squad! Time to go, fuckers,” I shouted.

2 Vic was back from the mechanics, and I was happy to be rolling out in my own truck again. I walked up the ramp, ducking my head as I stepped into the passenger area. Moving to the middle of the truck, next to the gunner’s seat, I dropped my gear in front of my seat, and plugged my headset into the comm’s box. Spc. Crapenter and Sgt. Taaga were busy making last minute checks.

“Hey, T. What else do you guys need before we go?”

“Hey Sgt. Taylor, we’re all set,” he replied.

I liked having Sgt. Taaga as my vehicle commander. He was responsible, hardworking, and I always knew that I could count on him.

My squad arrived moments later, and we did our final checks and inspections. Sgt. Bridges and Sgt. Fraleigh went around to their soldiers, making sure each man had the equipment he was supposed to have; ammunition, water, dog tags, ID card, batteries, night vision, weapons, etc.

Ready To Roll #2

2nd Squad NCOs: (L to R) Me, Sgt. Bridges, and Sgt. Fraleigh getting ready to roll.

It was about 7:30 P.M. when we finished our patrol brief, and got everyone loaded up.

After doing our usual comm’s checks on the platoon and company frequencies, we got word to roll out.

On our way to the gate, Lt. Schardt got a call from battalion headquarters asking us to return to the TOC, so we found a place to turn around and headed in that direction. When we turned around, our vehicle shuddered a little, and started making some unusual noises, so I called Lt. Schardt and told him something wasn’t right with our truck still. He told me to stop by the motor pool and see if a mechanic was available to take a look at it.

The platoon headed toward our battalion TOC, while we made a quick stop to get it checked out. Luckily, there were still a couple of General Dynamics guys there working, and they came out and took a look. They told us to go ahead and roll, but they suggested that we get it back into the shop as soon as possible.

We left the motor pool and caught up with the rest of the platoon just in time for an intelligence briefing. We were told that battalion had received intel about a possible ambush aimed at a supply convoy that was currently underway on MSR Tampa. In response, a drone had been launched, and its operator had spotted a group of armed individuals in a palm grove on the east side of the highway. The drone was still on station, and the operator estimated that there were 12 to 15 of them gathered there.

The briefing continued, “Elements of Charlie company are currently operating in the area. They have one patrol southwest of Mshahdh and another to the east toward Tarymiyah.”

If intelligence was correct, our planned patrol to 14th Ramadan would have had us pass through the insurgents’ kill zone ahead of the supply convoy. An infantry platoon is a somewhat harder target than a logistics convoy full of quartermaster soldiers and truck drivers.

Lieutenant Colonel Boccardi, the battalion commander, changed our plans. He directed us to roll out and clear along the east side of MSR Tampa where the gathering had been spotted. They wanted us to find the ambush before the ambush found a convoy of coalition forces. 2nd platoon would roll with us, and clear the west side of the highway as well.

Initially, we were told that we would be dismounted, walking through the palm groves looking for the group of insurgents, but that changed before we even got outside of the wire. Someone at HQ had decided that we should remain in our vehicles when we reached the ambush site. We were supposed to drive slowly up the northbound lanes of MSR Tampa, while 2nd platoon stayed a couple hundred meters behind us driving in the southbound lanes. In addition to our plans changing, we were informed that the gathering had grown from about 15 to nearly 30 people, and that they had started walking to the south after spotting the UAV circling above them.

We are going to roll right into a complex ambush, I thought. As we rolled out, I was just imagining that there would be IEDs on Tampa, and small arms fire and RPGs immediately following the detonation. 2nd platoon is going fishing, I told myself, and we are their bait.

We headed north on Tampa, passed through Mshahdh, and approached the target area. The temperature had dropped to just below freezing, which made standing in the top hatch of a Stryker almost unbearable. My face was red and aching, and the wind was just cutting through my uniform, chilling me to the bone. and the wind was cutting right through my uniform. We all had plenty of cold weather clothing (snivel gear), but we couldn’t really wear it when we were out on patrol. If we made some sort of contact and had to be out on the ground moving, we would easily overheat if we were wearing extra layers of clothing. As a result, we just dealt with the cold.

We reached the area where the insurgents had been spotted, and Lt. Schardt had Spc. Eichler slow down to almost a crawl. The rest of our drivers followed suit, and we crept through the area, scanning the roadway for IEDs and watching for movement off to the sides. We didn’t see a thing, so Lt. Schardt reported back to the company that there was no enemy activity in the area.

We halted and waited for further instructions. Cpt. Veath finally gave us the go ahead to proceed with our originally planned patrol to 14th Ramadan. My soldiers were clearly disappointed. They had been pumped up thinking we were going out hunting for a platoon-sized group of insurgents, and it was a real let down when we didn’t find anything. All of that excitement had been for nothing.

Our patrol through Ramadan was quiet. After we walked the loop around the village and checked in with the CLCs, we loaded up to return to Taji.

We headed west toward MSR Tampa, and I checked my watch. We were running a little later than we had initially planned, but it looked like we would be back in on Taji around midnight, and that wasn’t bad at all considering all of the stuff that had come up.

The ride back to Taji was cold and quiet. For the most part, we were alone on the highway. There really wasn’t any radio traffic to speak of either, and the guys had all come down off of their adrenaline rushes from earlier. Most of them were dozing in the back of the Stryker. We had rigged some wiring to connect an iPod to our vehicle’s communication system, so those of us wearing headsets or vehicle crew helmets were listening to music on the way back. After all of the excitement, I think everyone was looking forward to getting back and calling it a night.

The main gate at Camp Taji had just come into view when Lt. Schardt announced over the radio that we had another change of mission. “Battalion wants us to proceed north to the IA checkpoint near 14th Ramadan and link up with a platoon from Charlie Company. How copy? Over.”

They say that soldiers aren’t happy if they aren’t bitching. I can assure you that we had a happy platoon that night. We were all cold and tired, and we were all pissed that we were being called all over the place for nothing.

We made a u-turn right in front of the gate and headed back to the north. We pulled off to the side of the road just south of the checkpoint and waited for the platoon from Charlie. When they arrived, Lt. Schardt went and met with their platoon leader to find otu what exactly was going on.

The latest intel’ said that the group of insurgents that our UAV had spotted earlier, had entered a house on the west side of MSR Tampa. This platoon from C Co. was going to surround the house and call the inhabitants out. It was going to be a sort of knock and search. They needed us to set up blocking positions to the south and west, to make sure that no one tried to escape from the house as the men from our sister company approached. Our job was to capture or kill anyone who fled from the home.

It was after 1 A.M. when the platoon from C Co. was in position and ready to execute their mission. We dismounted on the highway and walked west through some tall grass and open fields to the south of our target. We ran into another house and a canal, and then turned north toward Charlie’s target, and found a spot with a good view of the house and the surrounding fields. It was a shitty location, because we were back-lit, and there was absolutely no cover or concealment. Thankfully, our Stryker crews, still parked on Tampa, could see us and were able to offer of some rear security so we could focus most of our attention on the target.

16 Jan Blocking Position

A rough sketch of our blocking position. We did have some eyes to the south and west, in addition to our Strykers watching us from the highway.

We were tired, and the night was growing colder. Still, we all hoped for some action.

Soon after we set into our blocking positions we saw lights moving around the target house, and it looked like someone was searching for something. We called up what we saw, so that it could be passed on to the Charlie Company guys. It turns out that it was the Charlie Company guys. They had gotten two of their Strykers buried in the mud, and they were trying to get themselves out so they could finish setting in around the house.

I heard the call to Lt. Schardt come across the radio, “Bushmaster Red 6, Dragon 6 says to hold your position until dawn. Over.”

Fuck! I thought. We are going to sit here and freeze our asses off. Half of our platoon is sleeping in their Strykers with the heat on, and we are stuck out here without any snivel gear.

“Roger that,” Lt. Schardt replied.

He walked over to give me an update, but before he could even say anything, I started bitching, “I know, Sir. I heard the call. What the fuck are these guys supposed to do out here in the cold? None of these guys have cold weather gear out here, and the B.C. is sipping coffee and watching this shit on a big screen in a heated TOC. What the hell is Charlie doing up there, anyway?”

He called SFC AB and told him that we may need to figure out a way to rotate soldiers, or at least get our assault packs brought out from the trucks.

I briefed my team leaders on the situation and told them to be sure they are checking on their guys. Sgt. Bridges and I walked around talking to the men and making sure they were okay. We also made some minor adjustments to our security perimeter since we were now planning to stay put for longer than we had initially anticipated. PFC Colleran was already hurting from the cold. He was tall and skinny; not really ideal the ideal body type for being in the cold without extra layers.

Colleran as RTO in Abayachi

PFC Colleran in Abayachi later in the deployment.

Sgt. Bridges sat down with him, and I walked over to talk with some of the other guys in Sgt. Fraleigh’s team.

When I came back around, Sgt. Bridges and Colleran were still talking about how cold it was. Colleran kept repeating, “this sucks. It really sucks. This sucks so bad.”

I sat down with them, because I was a little concerned he was going to freak out while we were sitting out there.

Dogs had been barking around us since we first moved out into that area, and just as I sat down, one ran by really close to us. We joked about skinning it so we could have something to keep warm with. Then we decided we would be better off if we could catch it, tie its legs, and tape its mouth, so that we could take turns cuddling with it for warmth. We joked too, about how we might react in the morning if we found a cobra snuggled up to us, using our body heat to stay warm. We sat there quietly talking and telling jokes, trying to keep Colleran’s mind off of the situation.

Colleran finally said, “I wish someone would just shoot me.”

Sgt. Bridges replied, “I just wish we could get some mortars coming in. We could run around and get warmed up.”

Sgt. Bridges and I could not stop laughing at Colleran’s discomfort. He couldn’t figure out why we thought the situation was so funny, so we explained to him that he just doesn’t have as much experience in the suck as we do.

“One day, Colleran, you’ll be used to the suck. When things get really bad, you’ll just laugh at it,” I told him.

“Embrace the suck,” Bridges told him. “I’m glad I can be here to share your first sucking experience.”

I chimed in, “Hey, at least we’ll be up in time for breakfast.”

“At dawn, they’ll probably tell us we have to stay until noon,” Colleran moped.

Bridges replied sarcastically, “Holy shit! Have you done this before?”

It was around 2 A.M. when Charlie Company finally approached the target house. They hit the front of the house with lights and called on a loud speaker for the occupants to come out. The family that lived there came out, and they were willing to cooperate.

It was bad intel’. There weren’t 30 people there. It was just a family. Soldiers searched the entire home and found nothing.

Once the search was complete, we were told we could return to Camp Taji. We started walking back toward our Strykers a little after 4 A.M. We were freezing and feeling pretty drained.

We arrived at Camp Taji a little after 4:30 A.M., and we headed to the fuel point. After our vehicle crews topped off on fuel, we linked up with a heavy wrecker, and headed back out onto Tampa. We had to escort the wrecker up to the C Co. Strykers that were stuck in the mud near the target house.

When we arrived, they had already managed to pull the Strykers out of the mud, but we sat nearby until they had all of their vehicles back on the hard pavement on MSR Tampa. Once all of their vehicles were on the blacktop, we headed south again, toward Camp Taji.

It was a little after 6 A.M. when we arrived back at Camp Taji. We finished up some after patrol business and went to bed.

 

More later.

Cub Scout Camping Trip


Image

This story also first published in Proud to Be:  Writing By American Warriors, Volume 2. (2013)

“Dad, can we please go camping with my Cub Scout pack this weekend?” Jacob asked, as he climbed into the back of my car outside of his school.  “It’ll be so much fun, and all of the other scouts are going!”

I looked over my shoulder to watch him buckle his seat belt. “Yeah, I saw it on the calendar.  I already made plans to go.  Your mom has to work, so she won’t be able to go with us.”

His eyes lit up as he pumped his fist.  “Yes!  It’s going to be so awesome!”

When we got back home, Jacob hopped on his bike and went down the street to his friend’s house.  I climbed up into the attic above the garage and started digging around.  I was looking for our tent and wondering what else we would need to bring.   At the bottom of a dusty stack of cardboard boxes I saw “Cold weather camping stuff” written in black marker.

“That figures; it would be on the bottom” I thought out loud.

I moved the boxes off of the top, and gray insulation dust swirled up from the floor as I made a new stack.  My eyes itched, and the dust made me cough.  After moving the last box from the stack, I reached down to open the one that I wanted.  I used my keys to puncture the clear packing tape, and opened the flaps.

The contents took me back a little.  The very first thing that I pulled out was a desert camouflage Gore-Tex jacket and rolled up underneath it was the matching pair of pants.  I held up the jacket and thought about my last combat tour in Afghanistan.  It was the third of my four deployments.  It had been so cold out there in the mountains, and we were told not to carry too much because of the elevation.  I rolled the jacket back up and set it aside.  Reaching into the box again, I pulled out a pair of cold-weather combat boots.  Now, these I can definitely use this weekend, I thought.  It was late October and there had been frost every morning lately.

I kept flipping through the box and pulled out a couple pairs of gloves, a ski mask, a scarf, some old long-sleeved undershirts and a bottle of arctic rifle lubricant.  I threw the gloves into a pile of things to take camping and set the other stuff to the side so that I could repack it all.  I found two sleeping bags folded flat at the bottom of the box.  Mine was black.  It was one of the three pieces that came with an army-issued sleeping-bag system.  Jacob’s had Scooby Doo on it.  I carried the sleeping bags, boots, and gloves over to the attic entrance and dropped them onto the garage floor below.  I went back over and put the rest of the stuff back in the box and closed it up.

Still looking around for the tent, I wondered what else I should bring.  My mind started to wander, and I began thinking about all of the times I had spent nights in the field as a soldier.  I hadn’t been camping since I left the army, three years earlier.  A tent still sounded like a luxury.

I found our green three-person dome tent shoved in the back of the attic behind some boxes.  I grabbed it and slipped the shoulder strap over my head.  I climbed down the ladder back into the garage.  I set the tent down with our camp chairs and grabbed the other things I had dropped down from the attic entrance.  I placed it all in a pile near the garage door and thought about going inside.

Instead, I climbed back up into the attic.  I knew that there was an old army rucksack up there somewhere, and everything we needed would fit into it.  Wishing I had taken more time to organize stuff when I hauled everything into my attic, I started digging around again.  After opening five boxes of Precious Moments figurines, baby clothes, and Christmas decorations, I finally found what I was looking for.

I pulled my old green rucksack out of a box and opened it.  My Kevlar helmet and rifleman’s vest were packed away inside.  The ammo pouches still had empty rifle magazines in them.  The ear plugs I had used in Iraq were still clipped onto the top of the vest, and there were still unopened first-aid dressings in the pockets.  In another pocket I found a small folded up section of a map of Baghdad.  An intersection on the map was circled in red pen, and I remembered my friend Kyle who had been killed there.  I closed my eyes and saw the stucco buildings standing guard around that intersection; their broken window panes and bullet riddled walls told tales of earlier battles.  The streets had suddenly cleared out, and we sat there quietly, waiting for something to happen.  The single rocket screamed as it streaked across the road and slammed into Kyle’s truck, bringing with it chaos and confusion.  My heart started to beat faster, and I took a deep breath.  I could still smell the mix of smoke, dust, and gun powder in the air, and I heard a panicking voice come across the radio again as they sped away from the contact, leaving a trail of black smoke in their wake.

“I’ve got two down!  Two down!  We are pulling back.  I can’t find a pulse!”

The intensity of the shockwave from the explosion came back to me, and I could see the smoking truck speeding away as we moved toward the enemy.  We opened up with everything we had and rained hell on that small piece of the city.  Our machine guns punched holes in the walls and doors, and our lieutenant called for air support.  We were still firing when Apache attack helicopters swooped in low over our heads and released their Hellfire missiles, making loud swooshes followed by ear shattering explosions that sent bits of stucco, splinters of wood, and pieces of broken glass raining down on us.  The dust and smoke made it hard to see and even harder to breathe.  Gunfire and the explosions were all that could be heard, and we still weren’t finished.  Air Force fighter jets screamed overhead, and we were directed to back away from the intersection.  They flew high over the city streets, making pass after pass, releasing their bombs.  One at a time, the buildings on each side of the intersection erupted into giant balls of fire.  Black smoke, dust, and debris rose high into the sky while we yelled and cheered.  When the smoke cleared, the buildings were gone.  A city block in each direction had been reduced to rubble, but Kyle didn’t make it.

I refolded the map and put it back into the pocket where I had found it.  Since I didn’t need body armor for camping, I reluctantly set it aside.  I dropped the empty rucksack to the garage floor below and climbed down the ladder.

Jacob came home from his friend’s house, and all he could talk about was going camping.  All through dinner it was all we heard about.  He could hardly sit still long enough to eat.

“Mom, Dad and I are going camping tomorrow,” he said with enthusiasm.  “I can’t wait!  I’m going to get to shoot a bow and arrow, and go hiking, and they will even have a bonfire,” he went on and on.  “Maybe I’ll even finish up the things I have to do to get my wolf badge.”

“I know, honey,” my wife said.  “I’m sure you’re going to have a great time, but you need to make sure you’re careful out there, and you have to be good for your dad.”

That evening after dinner I made a list of everything that I wanted to take camping.  I hadn’t been out to the woods for a long time, and I didn’t want to forget anything.  Never mind the fact that this camping weekend was going to be at a Boy Scout camp with a lunch room, bathrooms, and showers.  I wrote down everything I could think of.  I’ll need to bring a first-aid kit, Gatorade powder, extra socks, and my diving knife.  I continued writing: Para cord, bungee cords, entrenching tool, rain jacket and pants, insulated undershirts and pants, tent, chairs, combat boots and shooting gloves. The more I wrote, the more I worried about missing something.  I wondered if I still had my foil casualty blanket and if I could find my fluorescent VS-17 signaling panel.  They went on the list.  I scribbled down map pens, sleeping bags, extra water and food, a red-lens flashlight, signaling strobe light, extra batteries, and d-rings.  Adding more to the list, I wrote soap, hand towel, wash cloth, baby wipes, toothpaste, and toothbrush.  My list filled an entire page of notebook paper, and I still had this terrible feeling that I was forgetting something.

I went to bed that night, worrying about being prepared.  Theresa slept, while I stared into the darkness of our bedroom.  I finally drifted off to sleep sometime after three.  When my alarm went off at five-thirty, I felt like I had just fallen asleep.

Theresa got up, got ready for work, and left the house.  I took Jacob to school that morning and came home to pack after I dropped him off.  I would have to pick him up a little after three, and we would need to leave just after five when Theresa got back home.  The camp facilities opened up at four so that campers could get their sites set up before dark.  It would be close to six before we would arrive, and it would be dark by seven.

I spent the morning packing and checked each item off of my list as I stuffed it into my rucksack.  The pack held everything except for our tent poles and our two camp chairs.  Those we could carry separately.  My rucksack held enough food, water, and survival gear for us to get by in the woods for a few days without resupply.  I had everything we would need to stay warm in the cold weather, and all of the right stuff for directing a medevac helicopter in to our position.  I was prepared for whatever might happen.

Three o’clock came, and I picked Jacob up from school.  He was practically bouncing off the walls when he jumped into the car.

“Is Mom off work yet?  What time are we leaving?  Jameson said that his dad is taking him right when the camp opens.  When can we go, Dad?”

“Settle down, Jacob.  I already told you that we won’t be going until your mom gets home from work.  She’s off at five tonight, so we should be able to leave by a quarter after or so.”  I looked back to see that he was buckled, and then we headed home.

Once we got back to the house, Jacob asked for a snack.  While he ate a stick of string cheese, I loaded our gear into the car.  “Is there anything special that you want to take tonight, Jacob?”

“Can we take stuff to make s’mores?”

“Yep, it’s already packed,” I said.  “Anything else?”

“Nope,” he said, as he pulled another strip from his string cheese and dangled it over his open mouth.

I stepped out into the garage and looked around for anything that I might have missed.  I still felt like I was forgetting something, like I was unprepared.  Theresa got home a just after five, and we chatted for a few minutes about her day.

I kissed Theresa goodbye, and told her to enjoy the quiet weekend.  “We should be back in town sometime Sunday afternoon, but call me if you need anything.  Hopefully, my phone will have signal out there.”

Jacob had disappeared into his room, so I peeked around the corner of the hallway and said, “Let’s go, Jacob.”

Jacob came bouncing down the hall like he had just finished a case of Red Bull.  He ran outside and climbed into the car.  I followed him out, and we headed toward the Boy Scout camp.

I drove through the camp’s entrance.  There was a gate that could be locked across the country road, but it wasn’t attached to any sort of a fence.  As we rounded a bend and entered the gravel parking area, I saw families unloading camping gear from their cars and walking off into the surrounding woods.  Other parents and scouts stood in line at a card table situated near the edge of the parking lot.  Scout leaders flipped through papers attached to clipboards and highlighted names as the campers checked-in.

I looked around.  We were surrounded by woods.  A few buildings were situated here and there with woodchip trails stretching between them.  A single street light stood at one end of the parking lot.

I backed into an empty parking space near the exit and turned the car off, pulling the trunk lever as I got out.  Jacob and I stepped around to the open trunk lid, and I lifted it up.   I handed him the camp chairs, and lifted my rucksack.  After slipping my arms through the shoulder straps, I cinched them down and clipped my flashlight and diving knife onto my belt.  I closed the trunk and made sure that the car was locked, and we walked toward the back of the line at the card table.

When it was our turn, I gave the scout leaders our names.  They marked us off with an orange highlighter, and one of the men seated behind the table pointed to a woodchip trail and explained where my son’s scout pack had made camp.  Jacob carried our camp chairs, and I hauled the over-packed army rucksack down the trail to our campsite.  As we reached the small clearing where Jacob’s friends were set up, I noticed that the tents weren’t arranged in any particular fashion.  Camp chairs were scattered here and there.  Kids were running all over the place yelling.  Some of them were carrying colored light sticks in their hands, others had them tied around their necks, and still others had flashlights.  It wasn’t dark yet, but it would be soon.  Moms and dads were sitting around on picnic tables and in lawn chairs.  Some were drinking coffee or hot cocoa already, and others were drinking sodas that they had brought out in big coolers.

I immediately felt uncomfortable.  It was too noisy here.  We were too visible.  Where was the security around this place?  What kind of an idiot would set up a camp this way?

Jacob dropped the camp chairs next to a tree and watched his friends.  “Can I go play, Dad?”

“Yeah, I can get the tent up.  It’s pretty simple.  Come back and check-in with me before it gets too dark.”

“Okay!” he yelled as he disappeared down a trail with the rest of the kids.

I went to work on the tent.  A few minutes after I started, another dad came walking over.  I noticed his desert combat boots and his camouflage pants as soon as I saw him.

“How ya doing?  I’m Mike,” he said.

I stood to shake his hand and introduced myself.

“I saw your boots and your rucksack.  Army?”

“Yep, almost ten years,” I said.  “What about you?”

“I just got out last year, when I got home from Iraq.  Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Did you have a hard time packing for this little trip?”

Escort

P2B Vol. 2

This story first published in Proud to Be:  Writing By American Warriors, Volume 2 (2013)

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.  On behalf of Delta Airlines, I would like to welcome you to San Antonio, Texas.  The local time is eleven-twenty-three AM, and it is currently seventy-eight degrees and sunny.  We will be pulling up to the jet way momentarily, but we ask that you please remain in your seats.  Today, we have the honor of carrying the remains of a fallen American soldier.  Please remain seated until his casket can be off-loaded.  Thank you for your patience and thanks again for flying Delta Airlines.”

The flight attendants were up moving around the cabin, and one of them approached my seat.  “Thanks for what you’re doing,” she said. “If you would like to go ahead and grab your carry-on, you can move up to the door.”

I unfastened my seat belt and reached up to grab my bag from the overhead bin.  The passengers sitting near me suddenly looked very uncomfortable.  The young woman whom I had sat next to for the last few hours had told me all about her hometown, her work, and how much she loved running.  She had asked me about where I lived, if I had been overseas, and what it was like to jump out of airplanes.  We had talked off and on for most of the flight, but now she looked at me sympathetically.   She hadn’t thought to ask why I was flying to San Antonio.

“Once again, we appreciate your patience, ladies and gentlemen.  Please remain in your seats, and we will deplane momentarily.”

As I stood up, I straightened my necktie and pulled at the hem of my green jacket.  Once everything was in place, I moved forward.  As I walked toward the door some of the passengers looked at me with sorrowful faces, others checked their watches as if waiting was a huge inconvenience.  A few older gentlemen looked at me and nodded.  As I reached the door of the aircraft, I was met by the pilot.  He put his hat on, and I slipped on a pair of white gloves and pulled my black beret onto my head making sure that the folds were just right.

I followed him out onto the jet way and then through a side door that led outside.  We walked down a flight of metal steps onto the tarmac where a charcoal-gray hearse was backed up next to the conveyor belt that would carry luggage out of the plane’s cargo hold.  The driver stepped out, opened its rear door and walked over to us.  He was an older man, dressed in a black suit, and walking with a limp.  On his left lapel he wore an American flag pin.

He shook hands with the pilot, and then reached for my hand.  “Good mornin’, Sergeant.  I’m Bill Meyers.  Once we get the casket loaded, I’ll take ya on around to pick-up your luggage.”

I reached out and shook his hand.  “It’s nice to meet you, Sir.  I’m Staff Sergeant Taylor.”

The pilot nodded to the ground crewman who was standing in the entrance of the plane’s cargo hold.  Looking up at the plane I could see passengers’ faces in the windows.  They were all looking down, trying to see what was happening.  Behind me, in the airport terminal, some people had stood and were watching.

I stood there thinking about how much I hated this part of the job, and how later I would have to meet this kid’s parents.  How the hell did I get picked for this one anyway?  He wasn’t even in my squad.

As the ground crew worked to prepare the luggage carts, a long rectangular box came into view.  The man inside the fuselage cut the shipping bands and lifted the top off.  Inside was a soldier’s casket with an American flag stretched over it and held tight by an elastic band.  Private-First-Class James Anthony Smith Junior, barely twenty years old and dead.  A hero’s homecoming for a kid who had never even been to war; I wondered how these people would respond if they knew he had died in a hotel room after getting drunk and overdosing on prescription pain killers.  It must have been some party.  Unfortunately for his mother, the hotel housekeeping staff had found him on the bathroom floor on Sunday morning.  It was Mothers’ Day.

With the help of the mechanical wheels in the plane’s cargo area, the man maneuvered the casket to the top of the conveyor belt.  Another crewman turned it on, and the casket slowly descended from the aircraft toward the waiting hearse.

I snapped to attention and raised a slow ceremonial salute.  The pilot saluted as well.  When the casket reached the bottom of the conveyor, ground crewmen and Mr. Meyers slid it into the back of the hearse.  I dropped my salute.  The pilot shook my hand and thanked me for my service, and then he turned and walked under the plane heading back to the stairs.  I walked over to the hearse.  Mr. Meyers was fastening the casket onto the rollers and straightening the flag.

In his Texas drawl he said, “Hey, Sarge, go ahead and get on in the passenger seat there.  It’s a good forty-five minute drive down to the funeral home.  The family’s gonna meet us there.”

I opened the door and sat down on the leather seat.  I took off my gloves and my beret, and I waited.

After closing the back door, Bill walked around and climbed into the driver’s seat.  “Which luggage carousel do you need to go to, Sarge?”

“Carousel A, please.”

“Alright.”  He shifted into drive and started following an airport-security vehicle toward the gates to the flight line.

“Are you familiar with the Smith family, sir?”  It wasn’t my first time meeting grieving family members, but I wondered what I was getting into.  I absolutely hated delivering the body of a young soldier to his mother and father.

 “Yeah, I have known them for years.  We’re actually headin’ to a small town outside of San Antonio.  It’s a pretty close community.”

“How are they doing with all of this?”

“Well, Jimmy’s dad has been doin’ alright, but his mother, well she’s pretty well devastated.”

We pulled up to the baggage claim and parked.  I stepped out and went inside to retrieve my bag.  I came back out and slipped it into the back of the hearse next to the casket, and we drove on.  Bill and I talked some on the way to the funeral home.  He asked about the Army, and told me that he had served many years earlier.

“Jimmy’s father retired from the Navy about ten years ago.  He was real proud that Jimmy decided to enlist.  He never could understand why the boy wanted to join the infantry, though.  Sure is a shame how he died.”

I sat there talking, but really I was thinking about how this first meeting with Jimmy’s mom and dad would go.  I had no idea what to expect.  I wondered if they would blame me for their son’s death.  They let him go off into the Army, and his leaders allowed this happen. 

We arrived at the funeral home, and there were several cars there waiting for us.  As we pulled up next to the double doors a woman got out of the passenger side of a blue truck.  Bill gestured towards her.  “That’s Jimmy’s mom, Wendy, there.”

Mrs. Smith looked to be in her mid-forties.  She was short and appeared to be in good shape.  Her hair was blonde, but there was some gray in her roots.  She wore a black dress, and her makeup had been smeared.  I could see that her eyes were red and puffy from crying.

The funeral director came out through the double-doors to meet us with a rolling cart.  Bill opened the back door to the hearse, and they pushed the cart up to the back bumper.  After unfastening the clamp that held the casket in place, Bill and the funeral director slid the casket onto the cart and pushed it inside.  I walked in behind them.

Jimmy’s mom followed us inside.  I quietly asked Bill to keep her occupied and away from the casket for just a moment.  Part of my job was to open the casket and check the uniform.  I had to make sure that everything was neat and crisp, and double check the placement of all of the medals and badges.  Funeral homes made mistakes sometimes, and occasionally things shifted in flight.  Usually everything came out okay.  Regardless, I really didn’t want a dead soldier’s mother watching while I checked his uniform and made adjustments to it.

Bill tried to talk to her, but Jimmy’s mom demanded to see the body.  She stood at the center of the casket while the funeral director opened the lid.  She immediately became hysterical.  Even I was surprised at what I saw.  The makeup was caked on Jimmy’s face like paste.  His fingers were shriveled as if he had spent too much time in a bathtub, and they were still stained black from postmortem fingerprinting.  Doctors had performed an autopsy, and Jimmy’s fresh military buzz cut did nothing to hide the sutures that ran over his crown from one ear to the other.  It looked like the thick red stitching that holds the leather in place on an old baseball.

I took a deep breath and glanced over the uniform hoping that everything was correct.  Jimmy’s mother was weeping in the arms of another family member who had come into the viewing room.  Damn it!  Of course there would be something wrong, I thought.   The unit crest that was supposed to be centered over Jimmy’s right breast pocket was crooked.  I was really hoping that I wouldn’t need to move anything on his uniform.

Jimmy’s mom watched closely while I unbuttoned his jacket.  As I reached inside to remove the pin backs, I felt the stubble on his cold dead jaw scratch against my wrist.  I carefully adjusted the pin, and then I buttoned his jacket.  I turned to his mother and promised to find some white gloves to cover his hands.  Through tears she thanked me for bringing him home and turned back to her family.

I walked to the back of the viewing room.  I was angry that I had been picked for this escort detail, and I wanted to tell someone at the casualty assistance office that the preparing funeral home had done a really lousy job on the makeup.   The funeral director walked up and said that his makeup artist would clean up Jimmy’s face and hands before the visitation the following day.  I thanked him and stood alone at the back of the room.

A minute later the side door opened again, and Jimmy’s dad walked in.  Jim Sr. was a brawny man with hair over his ears and collar and a thick graying beard.  He had big tattooed arms and wore biker boots, faded jeans, and a plaid button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up his biceps.  It looked like he could have come straight out of a biker magazine.  Jim walked into the room, and the handful of gathered family members parted for him to walk through.  He approached Jimmy’s casket, and I heard him mumble something.

With his hands on the rail of the casket, he leaned over it and said, “That’s not my Jimmy.”  He repeated it more loudly and finally turned to his wife.  “It can’t be him.  That can’t be my son.”

They held each other sobbing, but his gaze searched the room and found me standing near the back wall.  I straightened up a bit, and he stepped around his wife in my direction.  His face was filled with hurt and wet with tears.  He walked toward me like a man on a mission, and as he got closer, I wondered what was going to happen.  When he was only a few steps away and still hadn’t slowed his pace, I half expected him to swing at me.  Instead, he ran right into me, wrapping his arms around me and crying on my shoulder.  He sobbed loudly and thanked me over and over for bringing his boy home.  Relieved that he didn’t try to take out his sadness and anger on me, I returned his hug and expressed my condolences.

Soon after the initial shock, the family thanked me again and began to clear out.  I was glad when Bill said he was ready to drive me back into San Antonio.  Jimmy’s mother offered to make arrangements for me to stay with someone in the family, but I politely declined.

Climbing into one of the funeral home’s black Cadillac sedans, Bill said, “You gonna get a rental car, Sarge, or are you gonna need a ride for the visitation and funeral services?”

“I’ll have a rental car for the rest of the week.  You can actually just drop me back at the airport, and I’ll be fine from there.”

“No problem, Sarge.”

The ride back to the airport was quiet.  I thanked Bill and double checked the times for the visitation the following day, and then we parted ways.  I checked into my hotel room and found a nearby bar.  I was hungry and tired, and I needed a drink.  I hated escort detail, and it bothered me to think that this kid was getting the same military honors that were performed for my friends who were killed in action.  I raised my glass in a private toast to myself for another mission accomplished and then a drink for Jimmy.  “Welcome home, kid.  Pills and booze, what a dumbass way to die.”