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Commentary: Honoring fallen comrades on The Ramp

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Christopher O. Darling
  • 451st Expeditionary Missions Support Group Deputy Commander
Before I even got to work yesterday, I knew there was going to be a Ramp ceremony. The route to the U.S. Air Force compound goes by the base commander's building, and flags flying at half-staff will tell you in an instant that the Coalition has suffered a loss in combat. On this day, the word went out a U.S. Marine was killed in action in Marjah, and the dignified transfer of remains ceremony would take place on the aircraft parking apron at 2 p.m.

It felt almost hot on the ramp. Even though it's still February in Afghanistan, the afternoon temperature was in the 70's as personnel began to gather for this event. Soldiers, sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States and from all the countries of the coalition began to arrive in groups in order to send home the fallen Marine. People stood around at the edge of the ramp waiting for the appointed time, while the grey-painted C-17 transport with a Dover Air Force Base, Del., tail flash squatted with open cargo bay doors on the ramp. Normal conversations were still taking place throughout the crowd, but they gradually began to die away as the atmosphere of the event began to infiltrate among the gathered military troops.

Finally, a contingent of Marines formed up and marched to the rear of the C-17 to form the inner cordon of honor. Then formations of troops of all services and all nations began to build and march into place behind the Marines. Australians, French, Dutch, and British were all there; hundreds of military personnel in total. The sight of the British sergeant major with some sort of ornamental cudgel fashioned from a thorny tree branch reminded me of their long military traditions and that they in particular have been in this place a lot longer than we have. The British army was deployed and fighting in Afghanistan 170 years ago. Then a US Army sergeant major stepped forward and issued instructions to my formation, pronouncing us the "VIP" formation of E-9s and O-5s and above--a label everyone present recognized as patently absurd, because clearly the troops in the inner cordon, not the brass, were the only VIPs present.

In any case, we marched to the rear of the aircraft, took our positions along with the rest of the gathered troops, and assumed Parade Rest.

A command rang out, and the formation snapped to attention as a Marine color guard marched forward. A Navy chaplain stepped to a lectern and began to speak, and the massed personnel strained to hear the words, but it was difficult. The auxiliary power unit on the C-17 emitted a constant whine.

The buzz of two fighter jets taking off on the runway added to the background. And the roar of arriving cargo planes also intruded, but this is an active airfield in combat, and missions cannot be stopped.

Troops in the field are in contact with the enemy, and close air support missions have to take off. Helicopters clatter around constantly.

Transport aircraft completing journeys of 10,000 miles or more arrive overhead, low on fuel, and urgently have to land. Kandahar Airfield never closes, not even for a ceremony like this. The Chaplain's words provided some fragments of information, and we all took in what we could: United States Marine ... 24 years old ... Camp Lejeune, North Carolina ... leaves behind a young wife.

Later we would read reports from the field that it may have been a single rifle shot from very long range that felled this Marine, but we can't be sure.

A sand-colored Mine-resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle drove slowly to the back of the cordon and stopped. These MRAPs are 40,000 pound trucks that constitute the standard for combat vehicles in today's world, and it was fitting a vehicle like this rather than some sort of ambulance was chosen to transport this warrior. The casket was passed from the back of the truck into the hands of the detail chosen from his fellow Marines.

Another command rang out, and the multi-national formation snapped to attention and right hands were raised in unison, and held, in salute.

Several long moments passed, with no sound except the snap of the color guard flags in the wind and the whine of the jet's APU. My hand is at the brim of my hat now, and I can see nothing to my right, although I know the detail must surely be approaching. And then suddenly the six-man detail appears before me, marching slowly and carrying the casket of one of America's best on their shoulders.

The casket is wrapped by the stars and stripes, folded and pressed and cinched tight at the corners, and the long aluminum box is barely disturbed by the footsteps of the Marines as they carry it smoothly and gingerly to the waiting aircraft. The flag is startling to see, its colors seeming impossibly bright compared to the dusty tan and grey and drab green background of this place.

The second man in the detail on my side is visibly stricken, his face a mask of grief as he carries his comrade on the first leg of his journey home. As the detail passes in front of me at a distance of maybe 20 feet, I watch the second man and I see that the arm of the Marine opposite him in the detail is extended beneath the casket. That man's hand is in the center of the second Marine's back, clenching his uniform blouse in his fist, physically holding him upright even as they walk together carrying their burden.

It's a sight I'll never forget. And then I'm physically reminded of the anger and hurt I feel for this warrior and his comrades and his family. It will always affect me, no matter how many of these ceremonies I have witnessed since 2004.

Seeing a sight like those Marines carrying their comrade, that's when you feel your jaw take a set; that's when you feel your throat constrict; that's when it suddenly gets hard to breathe.

And then the detail passes into the aircraft and is out of sight. The whir of the electric motors raising and closing the aircraft cargo ramp adds to the sounds of the scene, followed by the thumps and clangs of the ramp toes as they fall with a clatter as the ramp raises past the vertical. The electric motor stops, and suddenly the ceremony is over.
The formation faces to the aircraft for one final salute, and then we all disperse and walk away lost in our own thoughts until the next time we have to again gather on The Ramp.