It’s 2230 hours.
The flight line is dark.
The vague silhouettes of aircraft sparsely litter the place where the horizon touches the ground.
Where black meets the darkest of blues.
The moon and the stars are invisible, hidden by clouds.
Quiet, reserved conversations filter through the wind as human shadows stand in scattered clusters.
We watch as a flight crew prepares a Chinook helicopter for departure a few hundred meters away.
A squealing roar pierces the night as they warm up it’s APU.
A lower, deeper rumble can soon be heard.
In the distance, an invisible C-130 begins her final approach.
She lands flawlessly, as if it had been broad daylight.
The aircraft turns around and taxis back to where we are, joining the other massive, dark shapes spread throughout the parking apron.
The pilots position her so that she is facing away from us.
A rectangle of light appears as the cargo bay door slowly lowers, slowly turning into a bright square set against the darkness.
We approach the aircraft, perhaps 150 people strong.
Each step becoming more and more difficult the closer we get, partly from the heated prop wash from the still-running engines blasting over us. Partly from the solemn nature of this occasion.
Wordlessly, and without command, we line up on either side of the cargo bay door, facing each other.
Vehicles approach now, their floodlights clearly visible.
One of them, a military ambulance, backs up to the mouth of the human corridor we have just created.
We snap to the position of attention as the remains of fellow soldiers are carefully removed from the vehicle.
They are the men lost in a helicopter crash that happened earlier in the day.
As each one is carried past, ten in all, we salute and honor our fallen dead.
It’s not pretty, this attempt at ceremony.
There are no caskets.
No flawless Stars and Stripes draped over them.
Just body bags on olive drab canvas stretchers.
They will get a proper ceremony at a different base, but not tonight.
After they have been loaded, we are dismissed.
Within five minutes, the cargo bay doors are closed and the C-130 taxis away, preparing for the next leg of the journey.
As for us, we return to the side of the airstrip and slowly disperse into the night.
The preceding was originally posted by my friend and battle, SSG Matthew Nemeth, to his Facebook page in 2009. I had the pleasure of training with Matt during AIT at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. I thought that it would make a perfect post for Memorial Day. The following is Matt’s message for this year:
Don’t forget what this weekend is about. There are thousands upon thousands of dead men and women from every war buried in Arlington Cemetery. More who fought and died in Europe are buried in Normandy, France. Others rest in lonely little Civil War cemeteries peppered all over the country, and some still lie where they fell in the jungles of Korea and Vietnam, nameless and unknown, never making it home.
They paid the ultimate price. Freely and without reservation. Take a moment and think upon their sacrifice this weekend.