It was a beautiful day. Clear sky that was as blue as cornflowers, a small breeze that negated the humidity caused flags to ripple on their stands. Too bad it was a day filled with such sorrow.
The escort of motorcyclists has their bikes lined up and ready to go. The MIA/POW flag, the United States Flag and the flag of the United States Army was set on the back of the lead bike. A big three-wheeler with lots of chrome. The riders respectful as they stood by in their leather riding clothes adorned with military patches.
Inside, a flag was draped across a casket. A young man just turned 30 was inside. Turned out in his dress uniform, he was leading man handsome. The little stress lines on his face had been smoothed out, either by death or a skilled undertaker. Those lines had been earned the hard way.
As a young recruit, he had worked hard to excel. Meeting challenges with tenacity and a certain degree of bullheadedness that only the people who knew and loved him could appreciate. Eventually, he entered and served in the United States Army 82nd Airborne. He was assigned to Golf Company’s 1-504 Parachute Infantry Regiment where he was an 88 M Truck Driver, and, as a target for militants anxious to kill American soldiers.
It was these experiences that caused those lines on his face. Having someone shoot at you will cause these sorts of changes. He went to Iraq and Afghanistan to serve for his country.
While there, he developed friendships, an appreciation for the green hills of Ohio and the ability to eat whatever was served to him. He could sleep sitting up and looking for all the world like he was at attention, ready to spring into action at any moment.
He was also, unknowingly, exposed to a deadlier force than he ever expected. Open pit burning in Iraq, where black clouds spewed out a toxic cocktail of chemicals burned near military bases. Lungs would be weakened even as these hellish fumes presented these poisons into the respiratory system and would later present themselves as various fatal diseases. Cancer in multiple forms being the most common. Exposure of those gases would shorten the careers of many soldiers and wreak havoc with immune systems until there was nothing left to fight infections; sometimes even before they knew they were sick.
Others learned of their horrific fate, which would include incredible pain, tremors and weakness. Slowly withering away from preventable diseases, which have no cure.
My cousin, Will, was lucky in a sense. He went very quickly. Exposed to COVID, he had been in isolation with minor flu like symptoms, he thought he was recovering. My friend, Dan, spent nearly a year dying in an agonizing manner, until he too was gone. Will was buried on Saturday; Danny was buried on Monday. Similar services with people mourning the loss of these servicemen. Both serving in the Airborne, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, both stationed by open burn pits. They were both passionate about photography and music; they were the life of the party and died way too young.
The drive to the cemetery was marked with respect; it was such a small gesture, but appreciated. Cars on both sides of the road pulled to the berm as the procession passed, pedestrians removed their hats or saluted. They were small signs of acknowledgement, but meaningful to us as we drove.
At the cemetery, the Color Guard from the VFW, presented the flag which had been draped across the casket to my cousin and his wife. The 21-gun salute blasted through the quiet afternoon, then the mournful sound of taps played. The brass was collected and presented to his family and in the quiet, on that beautiful, sunny day. We bid him farewell.
Two days later, another mother and father would weep graveside. Will rests near his grandparents, as does Dan. Both men, forever resplendent in their dress uniforms, forever proud and forever missed.
Thank you for your service and your unwitting sacrifice.
Written and submitted by Sarah Roush for The Circleville Herald. The views of this column may not necessarily reflect that of the newspaper.