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Tyler & Sept. 11th

Like thousands of others, my eyes see beyond the simple symbols that many ignore each day. When I see a folded flag, I hear the rattle of brass as it is placed inside and mailed back to a loved one from a far away land, that they will never see nor understand.

 

I just watched the firemen and police officers of New York unfurl a tattered flag of the United States of America, as the Brooklyn Youth choir perfectly sang our National Anthem. Two symbols, one of textile art and another of melodious harmony that represents a heritage and lineage of our country that so few, luckily, understand in its fullness. 

The question will be, and has been asked, all day today where one was 10 years ago this day. For me, my mind goes swiftly back to where I was two years ago. Up to this point our squadron found itself in daily skirmishes with the enemy. Many seasoned veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom would go on to say that they saw more contact in the first few months of our deployment, than they did in the entirety of one of their tours to Iraq. The enemy fought with tenacity and shrewdness. The sound of a UH-60’s blades beating the air had become synonymous with an inbound casualty. I spent most of my morning gym routine listening closely past my headphones for the dreaded sound, usually precipitated by the belching volley of 155mm rounds from our 777 gunline. 

Upon hearing that our soldiers had come in contact with the enemy in a nefarious location, a bend in route California that had already claimed the life of a well-loved platoon sergeant, I made my way to the aid station and my Command Sergeant Major. CSM Wilson simply and somberly let me know that Tyler was dead. No grandiose announcement. No dramatic build-up. Just a thought that will forever rattle around in my brain, as it does for so many other Destroyers. All, I could mutter in reply was a simple, “No.” and “Damn it.” 

The rest of the day played out with horrific anticipation of getting our boys off of the hill, recovering Tyler’s body and the arduous process of moving forward. When I counsel individuals about recovering from tragedy, the best advice I give is that you must put one foot in front of the other. You may only make one step that day, you may make 10, but keep walking. And as the hours passed the reality dragged on, there was little else to do, but to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

I don’t know how I performed my job on that day, but I could not have, we could not have without each other. Even yesterday, when I was called at 0600 to provide chaplain support for a notification, I reached out to friends from that day, for prayer and understanding. I put on my Hero remembrance bracelet, looked at Tyler’s name, asked for his help, and drove away in my dress blues. 

The moments of prayer that we offered up as we surrounded Tyler in our makeshift morgue were sacred. The details of our pain and experience cannot be adequately expressed to those who have not had to farewell their own, far from familiarity and family. My hands tremble even now. 

I cannot see a flag flying and not see it draped over a litter under which lays the ultimate sacrifice of someone who gave up his life for his friends. I have no words for those who desecrate or burn the flag. They cannot understand my pain. We have nothing in common. They are anathema to me. I do not say this as a mindless patriot, but one who understands the red of the red, white and blue. 

I wept like a baby over Tyler’s casket in the C-130, following the ramp ceremony. CH Goff held me and I wept. I struggled to utter a blessing and talk to him before he made his final trip home. The Sunday prior, in our last chapel service, we sang Revelation song and Tyler excitedly asked to play guitar for chapel services for the remainder of the deployment. I felt elation and fulfillment and excitement of the ministry that we could provide to our soldiers together. And now I found myself unable to stand, kneeling next to him, crying and praying and reminding him, as though he needed it, to never quit worshipping at the feet of the Almighty, singing as he did last week, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” I believe he is. 

I stepped out of the bird and wandered aimlessly beside LTC Brown and CSM Wilson, and in our hearts and words we acknowledged that this deployment would take everything from us to endure. As we would inevitably find out to be true in the coming weeks. 

When I hear or sing the Star Spangled Banner, I am standing at any one of our memorial services for our 11 fallen brothers. When I see the Stars and Stripes, I see it rippling in the rotor wash of a Blackhawk as I lead a procession to begin the long, final trip home. When I salute, I am saluting the honorable memory of every soldier, sailor, airman or marine who finally knows the end of war.

Like thousands of others, my eyes see beyond the simple symbols that many ignore each day. When I see a folded flag, I hear the rattle of brass as it is placed inside and mailed back to a loved one from a far away land, that they will never see nor understand. 

A symbol is something that points beyond itself, to something greater. The flag and the anthem have a distinct meaning only found through profound, and often devastating, experience. A life cut short. Hearts rendered comfortless. Solemnity deeper than the loudest silence. All punctuated by an undying loyalty to the fallen and those still in the fight, to never forsake one another in a continued battle for freedom. Not only in the lives of oppressed people on the other side of the world, but also for those still caught in the grip of memories that invade our waking and sleeping lives. My lifevest in all of this, "death where is your victory, grave where is your sting." 

Tyler, one day we will celebrate the dream that almost was of worshipping and celebrating together. Until such time, I will keep putting one foot in front of the other.

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