Neal Freeland

Engineering/marketing manager, family guy. My personal blog with a few work thoughts mixed in.

Baghdad Roll Call

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Here’s a story from Bill during his last month in Iraq.

As I walked to my truck this morning, a massive explosion shook our base at Camp Victory. I could see a giant plume of smoke rising over the infamous and dangerous "Route Irish" that connects the Green Zone in the center of Baghdad with the international airport on the city’s edge. At dinner that night I saw on the military TV report that five soldiers were killed.

We’re in the midst of another personnel turnover here, with contractors and soldiers transferring responsibility to new teams just arriving, trying as best as possible to package up hard learned survival lessons. Though I’ve worked diligently during my time here, every lethal explosion drives home the point that we only make a small difference. Soon, someone else will do the work in my place. It feels like I’ve been here forever. Time for me to go.

Part of the turnover involved a tradition called a “Hail and Farewell” where the new-comers are welcomed and the short-timers celebrated over horseshoes, volleyball, and a barbeque. It was a strange feeling to witness the juxtaposition: goofing around inside the camp; smoke rising and helicopters zooming low outside it. After thoroughly whooping the new guys in volleyball and eating a fairly decent steak (well, except for the gazillion flies trying to eat it with me), it was time to head to a memorial service for a 20 year old soldier from our battalion. How quickly we go from mirth to ‘Iraqi Reality’ around here.

The deceased GI was Specialist Jeremy M. Hodge from Ohio. I never met him, but I worked with many of the young soldiers who called him a brother. The chapel was full to the brim with his fellow soldiers looking for some way to say goodbye. Under every seat, a rifle. At the podium were the battalion’s officers and one out-of-place young soldier. I saw many familiar faces, most of them teary-eyed. After nearly 10 months Jeremy was the very first soldier from this battalion to be killed. One month from going home. As dangerous as it is here, it’s uncanny that he could be the first.

Theological and secular words were spoken. Respects were paid by the division commander and assorted mucky-mucks. A fellow soldier sang a haunting song. His platoon leader spoke with a trace of anger. His platoon mates sat up front and sobbed. And then that out-of-place young soldier rose to the podium and introduced himself as Platoon Mate and Best Friend. You could feel a palpable, collective gasp. During his quiet and tearful soliloquy, he told us that he and Jeremy went to high school together, graduated together, lived together, joined the military together, went to war together…but, in the end, would not come home together. It was simply… impossibly sad. I’m sure Specialist Hodge would have been proud that his buddy just barely managed to keep it together. I was proud for him, but his grief was not mine. We attended to pay respects to his fellow soldiers and show support. It was their day to mourn a brother.

But, of course, there was something for me, too. The memorial service induced me to ponder the nature of brotherhood and friendship. I think of my best friends – what we went through to become that close, and how much they mean to me. How the essence of a friendship is engraved around the soul so that time and distance separating personal contact is irrelevant. And, after a time, it doesn’t matter if we each feel the same way; I love my best friends unconditionally…so in some ways this actually is about my day. I’m comforted that, when I call out your names, retorts still ring true from around the world.

Next came a ceremonial Roll Call. The First Sergeant stood in the rear of the chapel and called roll for the platoon as if they were lining up for a new mission. A name from the platoon was called. “Here, First Sergeant!” came the reply. Another was called. Once again, an affirmative reply. The voices were strong voices, young voices – clear as a bell. Then, “Specialist Hodge!……Specialist Hodge!……Specialist Jeremy…M…Hodge!” Absolute silence for what seemed like forever. Then, BANG!….BANG!….BANG!…. Three measured shots rang out, shocking in their volume and intensity. A lone soldier sounded “Taps” on his bugle. It was a powerful, brutal moment….played out much too frequently lately.

The goodbyes will go on and on and the young soldiers who are weeks away from going home will continue with their missions. When the war gets too abstract, I can bring to mind Jeremy Hodge and the best friend who will carry on without him. Writing about Vietnam in his fictional The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien describes the death of a best friend. In the end, O’Brien informs his readers that his novel was not a “war story,” but rather a “love story.” For me, this bottom line was crystal clear during that lonely Baghdad roll call.

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Written by nealfreeland

December 31, 2005 at 4:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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