Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
and things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art; to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Tonight the sun raged against the gathering darkness, its torrid eye searing the Western sky with liquid light. For a few minutes there was no sun, no stars, no sky. There was only this smoldering phoenix, resplendent in her incandescent wrath. Slowly, inexorably, this splendid creature of boiling light settled into her funeral pyre. And then she was gone, leaving the horizon a molten pool whose reflective glory danced off the high cirrus. Eventually even this belt of light faulted, and the twilight washed over the land like a swift tide.
I don’t remember which star first appeared in that vast and empty darkness, perhaps the afterimage of the dying rays of the sun were too deeply imprinted on my retinas for me to perceive it. I just know that when I looked up again at the night sky was a rich and deep velvet strewn with endless points of cold, diamond light.
Our sad little convoy gathered together under that star strewn sky and prepared to make our way to the International Zone. It would be here that we would pay our last respects to another of our fallen heros, SGT Jerry Lee Bonifacio Jr.
I first had the good fortune of meeting SGT Bonifacio several years ago during a deployment to the sands of Kuwait. Back then I was still a young platoon leader, and SGT Bonifacio was a fresh faced and motivated team leader. What I remember most about him wasn’t his determination, although he had that in spades. What set him apart was his supernatant attitude. In the hermetic world of the Infantry, where grim faced determination and a cutting wit are the order of the day, SGT Bonifacio was a breath of fresh air. His heart burned with an ebullience that could not be quenched, his mouth perennially bent into a wide and open smile. In those dry and cracked months we weathered sand storms that flayed exposed skin… and he smiled. We suffered through heat as foul as any we have experienced here in Baghdad… and still he smiled. There were times when our days stretched from one to the other without the solace of sleep… and he smiled on. And when he smiled it wasn’t the thin, pale crescent of a moonlit night – his smile was stoked by an inner fire as warm and welcome as an open hearth.
I didn’t get the chance to see much of SGT Bonifacio here in Baghdad, his company was detached to one of our sister battalions. But by all accounts he never lost that zeal for life that is so often stamped out by time and pressure. Where other withered he blossomed, making joy when there was none to be found.
The memorial ceremony for SGT Bonifacio took place in the elegant remains of one of Saddam’s palatial buildings. Rows after row of simple folding chairs cradled his grieving friends, their heads bent in silent reverie. The orderly rows of chairs were framed by tall fluted columns, as elegant in their fashion as those in the Parthenon. Groups of soldiers stood beneath these pillars, their eyes fixed on the simple memorial that served as a physical reminder of our painful loss. During the ceremony SGT Bonifacio’s entire chain of command honored our fallen warrior, their words giving shape and substance to the pain and loss laying heavy in the air. They were followed by SGT Helk, one of SGT Bonifacio’s closest friends. He shared his private memories of SGT Bonifacio – the songs he would hum in the mornings, and the way he would blare his radio at the end of a long shift. He remembered his friend happily thumbing through the latest comic books, or helping some of the other troops defeat the latest video game. And above all he remembered the deep and lasting optimism that suffused every aspect of SGT Bonifacio’s being.
After the ceremony we walked back to our HMMWVs in silence. I think the stars were still shining somewhere in that black vault. I don’t know. I didn’t care to look. The inky darkness seemed a better arbiter of my mood.
Please keep SGT Bonifacio and his family in your prayers.