Remembering the days they died

Posted: May 29, 2017 in Author's Notes


The following is a series of personal vignettes/reflections on the moments in my life when I found out that Soldiers I knew were killed in the line of duty.  It is a tough series of stories for me to write about, but I believe it’s necessary to get the deep emotions out in the open and to also remember the lives they lived and the moment those lives were taken from this world. I hope anyone else who knew these individuals will also reflect on the time that they knew them and where they were when they heard the news.  And for those who never knew these individuals, I hope this brings light to who they were as people in addition to the sacrifices they gave while serving their country.

It was a very chaotic and nerve racking day. I was battle tracking on of our convoys that had been ambushed in the Pech Valley of Afghanistan.  During the ambush, one of the trucks was struck with an RPG and set off the Halon system inside the cab. In addition to the RPG impact, the halon gas had engulfed those inside the truck. Two of the passengers in the truck had to be MEDEVAC’d to Bagram Airbase. One of them, J.M. was from our Company.  Hours later, we heard from the Commanding Officer that the convoy had made it safely to the FOB up the valley to be refit, while the two Soldiers at Bagram were in stable condition. Everything seemed ok that evening as things went on.  That night as I laid my head down to sleep, I was awaken by the Soldier on duty saying that our Soldier had suddenly gone into very critical condition. I told him to keep an eye on things.  A while later, I was told to go into the Command Post. The Battalion Executive Officer was on the phone and told me that J.M. had just passed away.  I didn’t know what to say. He seemed like he was going to be ok that day, and then all the sudden he was gone.  And as the Company Executive Officer, I had to wake up my Commanding Officer and inform him of the terrible news. His reaction was just as surprised as mine.  We didn’t know what to make of it.  It was our first casualty within the company.  As the night went on, we informed the Platoon Leader, the Platoon Sergeant, the First Sergeant, and by morning the entire Platoon learned the news.  People shed tears, expressed their anger and disappointment, walked around the base camp alone.  I spent the day inventorying all of his stuff to mail home to his family. Going through all of his personal effects, I saw so much more about him that I never knew.  He had a son and was really into electronica music.  I wish I had more time to get to know him before he was taken from this world.

The Afghan Election was taking place. It was one of the busiest days of the deployment. The entire day there were firefights everywhere across the country. Combat Outposts were being mortared and hit by small arms fire. Howitzers were not only providing indirect fire but direct fire on targets. People were running low on ammo hour by hour. I scrambled to call for emergency resupply of ammo to push on the next convoy to the Pech. I barely got any sleep that night as things kept going on.  Then the next morning I received a report that a truck was blown in half by an IED. At least one Soldier was killed, while the others critically wounded. They ran his battle roster number over the chat window in the CP, and I didn’t recognize it at first. I was just focused on all of the other 100 things going on at the same time. A couple days after the attack, the Battalion Staff had distributed his picture and a short vignette about his time in the unit. My old Motor Sergeant asked some of the other guys in the CP if they knew him at all.  I looked at his picture, and I instantly remembered who he was.  We had just pulled staff duty together a couple weeks before I got on the bird to deploy.  He was a young Sergeant who seemed like a pretty motivated and squared away guy, and was also serving as a squad leader at the time.  I didn’t talk to him very much while we were on duty, but he seemed like someone who was easy to get along with. But now I would never get the chance to know him.

Another normal day in Northeast Afghanistan.  The Battalion Command Sergeant Major was holding a promotion board at FOB Blessing. Soldiers from the outlying COPs were traveling to participate in the board.  Then that morning, one of the convoys heading to Blessing was hit by an RPG. The gunner in the truck was fatally wounded from the blast and was CASEVAC’d from Camp Wright back to Bagram. I was in the CP at the time, and we learned about it from the Chat log. They ran the battle roster number, and one of the Sergeants in the CP mentioned his name.  Y.L. was a young Pacific Islander Soldier.  I had only seen him a couple of times in the mass formations of Soldiers when the Battalion Commander gave his speeches.  There were casualties all the time in Afghanistan, but when you knew the face of the person who’s name came on the screen, it made it that much harder.  And it just sucks that he was on his way to the promotion board to hopefully become a Sergeant someday and continue with his career.  But in that moment when he was traveling on his way, it would never become a reality.

I was walking across the FOB with my Supply Sergeant.  As we passed by the mess hall, we saw a few of the Non-Commissioned Officers from the Brigade Support Battalion walking away from the airfield.  They looked like they were all crying, and we had no idea why.  We stopped by the medical aid station to find out what had happened, and that’s when we learned that a young Sergeant was killed on a convoy to FOB Bostick. E.W. was a junior NCO, a wife and a mother. She did not normally go on the Cannonball convoy, but that day she volunteered as they needed more people. It was on that convoy that her truck was hit by an RPG and impacted the area where she was inside the cab. A few weeks before that, I was just talking to her at our CP.  We were doing a drug test for the Company, and she was the administrator for it.  While she was sitting at the table, she asked me why I had Disney princesses painted on my desk.  I told her the story of how I went on a convoy one day and when I came back, my Supply Sergeant and Chemical NCO had painted them on there just for fun.  She giggled at them and said they looked cute.  I don’t know how her family is doing to this day without her in this world, but I hope they are in good hands today as they had a wonderful, caring mother who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect them.

This is the toughest one to write. I was relaxing in my B-hut after dinner and was looking to go back to the CP to hang out with some of my buddies. Then suddenly I heard my Platoon Sergeant get a call on his cell phone. He sounded very frantic, not the way I normally knew him to be.  He ran out of the hut to the CP.  I decided to follow him to find out what was going on.  It was then that the NCO on duty had pulled from the chat log that a platoon in the mountains had been mortared by insurgent fighters. One of them was critically wounded in the leg and had to be immediately MEDEVAC’d. It was also then that we learned the MEDEVAC had then turned into a CASEVAC and would be on its way to our airfield.  We waited almost an hour for the bird to arrive.  When it did, the Company Commander, First Sergeant, and two of the Platoon Sergeants rushed to the Black Hawk to grab the litter from the cockpit. It was dark and I couldn’t see much.  But when they carried the litter inside the Mortuary Affairs Collection Point, that’s when I saw him.  He lied on the litter lifeless, eyes closed, not breath at all. The respirator over his mouth was pumping air, but he chest was not moving. We all just stared for a few seconds in silence, then the Chaplain initiated a short prayer on behalf of the group. I had never seen anything like it. I don’t know how the Chaplain gained the courage to say anything in that moment, but he brief words provided a small bit of comfort in that moment. Immediately after, the Mortuary Affairs team began to prepare his body for storage.  The guys from my company kept asking if they could volunteer to help, but the team told them not to interfere.  I felt their pain in that moment as well.  We all wanted to do something but we couldn’t. There was absolutely nothing we could do. He was taken from us. Only a few days before that, he was on the FOB with me.  We were in the shower trailer and there was no hot water at all. I saw him in the hallway, and I asked him how he liked that cold shower.  He said, “I think they turned off all the hot water for the Audie Murphy board!” It was just all part of the sense of humor he had no matter the situation.  Whenever you were having a bad day or didn’t know what to do, he would always find a way to make people laugh.  I will truly miss him every single day.

We were almost done with our tour in Afghanistan.  The new unit had arrived and was learning the ropes from us.  About a week into their time with us, a squad was engaged in a small arms attack from insurgents in the mountains.  One of them was hit by sniper fire. I learned about his death while I was packing up my personal effects to get ready to go home.  The Battalion TOC had relayed to us that his body would be transported our airfield and that they needed help to transfer his body to the black hawk that would take him home.  I headed down to the MACP, and there were members of the new unit who were in the room. They all looked shocked and a bit unsure of what to do.  I didn’t know how to react myself as I did not know the Soldier and did not see his face inside the body bag. But the other Soldiers who were with me stayed focused on what had to be done – to get his body onto the bird to go home.  A few minutes later, the blackhawk had landed and the engines stopped.  That was our cue to roll the body out on the gurney and load him onto the bird.  As we walked out onto the airfield, the Pilot and his crew were lined up in formation on each side of us. They remained silent and rendered a salute as we rolled the body onto the helo.  It was a somber moment, and although I never knew the Soldier who we were carrying, I felt thankful that although he was no longer with us the professional Soldiers all around him would take great care to ensure his family received his remains and they would have closure to his life.

  1. E. OConnell says:

    Wonderful memories you wrote.

    There are so many amazing people who come into our lives. We often never know the impact they made on our lives until they are gone but it’s a blessing to have had the chance to know them no matter how short.

    So proud of you and that you were brought back to us safely. We appreciate every moment we have with you and the rest of our loved ones. Stay safe! See you in the fall!

    Love you!!!


    Sent from my iPhone

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