"Itís a pre-9/11/2001 night. The colonel's blackberry vibrates, he quickly looks at the screen, sees that itís the call we've been waiting for and hits the answer button. A few quick words, some clarification, a sincere thanks to the young captain on the other end and he hangs up. He looks at the Navy Admiral and Army General and nods, he looks at me and says, 'Chaplain, we're on . . . again.' I hear a tiredness in those four words, the same tiredness I feel in my body and soul. I suppose the fact that it's 0230 could contribute to the feeling, but it's far more than that.
I head to the room next door where the honor guard is waiting. The USO has been feeding them and they've deeply appreciated that. I don't know of any time of the day or night that young troops aren't hungry. I walk up to their commander and tell him it's time. The sergeant has already figured it out and before the officer can say anything, the word goes out, the room becomes quiet, they begin to slip their white gloves on, adjust their hats, and then check each other's uniform for perfection.
They assemble outside in tight formation and with heels clicking move off with a quiet cadence. Behind them we wait. The Flag officers concur that the Colonel should give the orders. Theyíre new at this and tonight, who's in command is a non-issue. Giving dignity, honor and respect is the only issue. I move to the far left, the position for the lowest ranking officer. But the others don't want the chaplain's job, for the only words outside the simple marching and saluting commands will be the chaplain's prayer.
We march out to the big C-5, the advance party has all the transfer cases in exact position. I see 10 flags, 10 transfer cases. Calling them that in my mind doesn't protect me, I can't shut out that these are the remains of nine men and one woman. They have names, they have spouses, they have parents, they have children, they have friends and it seems out of place but for a moment, I think, they have pets.
My Yellow Labrador's face crosses my mind and evokes a sad smile from me, I'm glad it's dark, no one would understand, and then I'm back to what's before me.
What do I pray? These men and this woman did not die in act of war. They died in a training accident. Some define Memorial Day as a day to remember those who were killed in war. I no longer make that distinction and instead remember those who died because of war. Is it a subtle difference? Does it take away from those who died in battle? I just know that these 10 were doing their mission in peacetime, maybe preparing for a war that would have to be fought and something went horribly wrong.
I think about the grave of the Unknown Soldier and the dignity, honor and respect that the honor guard brings to them. I think about the vigil that is kept for one we don't even know.
I pray that we will not forget these ten. I pray for their families and friends. They no longer think about the grammar of 'in' or 'because of.' An officer and a chaplain showed up at their family's door as if it were war. Their families are just entering the denial stage of grieving.
Your names are unknown to me and I'm sorry about that. I didn't learn them on purpose. I had to protect myself as best I could and not knowing you helped, a little, maybe. You're my unknown soldiers and sailors. But ten years later, God is answering my prayer. In my prayers today and in the ramblings of old chaplain, I'm remembering you and your sacrifice and praying for your families. It's not mine to bequeath to you, but I do it anyway Ė Memorial Day is for you too. Thank you for serving, for joining the always swelling ranks of the 'last full measure' to make this nation what it is. God bless you and this great nation."