Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
Today the soldiers of the Nightstalker Battalion closed ranks with the Tusker Battalion to say our final farewells to three fallen heroes. 1SG Alan Gifford, SGT Matthew Deckard, and SPC David Ford fought side by side with the Nightstalkers, and their unflinching courage earned them the respect and admiration of every man lucky enough to work with them. 1SG Gifford was the kind of NCO that inspired confidence in his men, a Gulf War veteran who was as resilient as the M1 tanks his soldiers crewed. SGT Deckard was also a seasoned veteran, using the lessons he learned in OIF I to better prepare his crew for the trials of combat. SPC Ford was on his first combat deployment, and had just celebrated his 20th birthday – but his dedication to duty and consummate professionalism would have shamed men twice his age. They were the kind of men you wanted backing you up when the chips were down. And time and again they were.
I started walking to the memorial service an hour before it was scheduled to begin. As 1LT Mo and I slowly trudged across the broken ground I looked up to see dozens of soldiers following convergent paths. It seemed like the entire FOB was in motion, pushing forward like a turbulent storm surge. Nobody seemed to be traveling alone, instead everyone was bound together in tightly knit groups. For a moment the scene reminded me of an old photograph of artic explorers huddled together for warmth. For a long moment that image stayed with me, turning over and over until I suddenly realized that what I was seeing wasn’t all that different from those grainy pictures. The bitter sense of loss was less tangible then those frigid winds, but it was cutting us just as deeply. But unlike those explorers of old it wasn’t warmth that caused us to aggregate - it was a far deeper and more urgent need. It was the deep seated desire to connect with others and reaffirm the bonds of friendship that stave away the darkness.
By time we arrived there were no longer any seats, and rather then root around for a place to sit we stood behind the assembled soldiers in silence. As the minutes ticked by the haphazard collection of soldiers continued to grow, spreading into a half moon of drawn faces and bowed heads orbiting around the memorial site. The approaching soldiers knew the area was flooded with soldiers but still they came, their numbers spilling into the street and into an adjoining motorpool. The soldier lined up on the fringes of the group could barely see the memorial stand, and they surely sensed that they wouldn’t be able to hear the memorial ceremony, but they didn’t care. What mattered to them was that they were present to honor our fallen warriors.
I moved to the back of the crowd to allow other soldiers a chance to move in closer, so I wasn’t able to hear the entire ceremony. But I didn’t need to – the sea of downcast faces was a testament to how may lives were touched by these fallen heroes. Their presence here sent a message more eloquent then any that words could convey. As the ceremony came to a close the assembled soldiers coalesced into a long line, every man patiently waiting for a turn to stand in front of the simple memorial and salute the fallen one last time. When my turn came I stood in front of their memorial and paused a long moment to say a prayer for their families. Then I gave one final salute and shuffled away into the twilight.