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Author Topic: TO LIVE WITH HONOR - Memoir - Prologue  (Read 271 times)
TimandHonor
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« on: December 03, 2017, 12:17:00 AM »

PROLOGUE

 
Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori
-   Horace

                                                                                                                     
“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”
It started with a Ranger’s boots.
In April of 2003, I walked through double doors to the receiving area of Dover Port Mortuary, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Caskets filled shelves along the walls. Gurneys sat scattered around the garage-style room. Three caskets packaged in shipping boxes lined abreast in front of me. Formaldehyde stink blended with bleach. MSgt. Rogers, a statuesque, mixed race woman with green eyes greeted me as I entered. She cut me off before I got to the three caskets.
Her eyes inspected my uniform and traced the starched creases down to my boots and stopped. She stared a long while then looked up. “Is that leather luster?” I smirked behind professional demeanor. Leather luster is known as “cheat polish.” It’s brushed on liquid polish that hardens to a perfect mirror shine requiring little time or effort. To be mistaken for leather luster is the highest compliment one can pay an Honor Guard.
“No ma’am. This is all hand polished.”
“Christ. It’s true.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Olsen says you’re the Superman of Honor Guards. That you’re the best flag-folder in the DoD. And he wasn’t kidding about your boots.”
“If they’re not perfect, we may as well not show up. Guardsmen embody the nation’s gratitude. What thanks is an imperfect Honor Guard? What does it say about the service of these men if I show up with scuffed boots and wrinkly uniform?”
“Well they’re the best boots I’ve ever seen, and I think these men and their families would be proud to know you folded their flags.”
“I’m just here to do what Guardsmen do. This is my job.” I impressed myself with my tone.
“Great, we need your help to get caught back up. We’re getting way behind.” Her voice changed with her expression. She became less sergeant and more mother. “Before you get started, I have to preface. You may  see and experience things here that touch your heart and mind. You’ll find that you take a piece of each of these men with you. So, if that ever becomes something you need to talk about, we have a counselor on staff, and a chaplain on speed dial. You can also talk to me or anyone else here. Don’t hesitate.”
“These men did their duty. This is mine. I serve alongside them in my own way. I volunteered for this. I couldn’t fight in the foxhole with them, but I can still bring them home. I’m an Honor Guard. We carry the weight of the dead. Death is our job, but  honor is our promise. Honor is all that remains of these men, and my sacrifices to keep that intact pale in comparison to their sacrifices in earning it.”
“Airman Finley,” she paused. “I hope you’re right.” She forced a smile through a complex expression. She continued with instructions, but a commotion over her shoulder snagged my attention.
A team of medically-clad personnel wheeled a soldier out through the autopsy doors on a gurney. His green dress uniform was perfect. He had a powder blue rope looped around his right shoulder. His best bald-fade haircut was his last. He was a Ranger, a hulk of a man bedecked with medals commensurate with his heroism. He slept. Men like that don’t die. They hoisted the hero off the gurney and lowered him into his casket. Their reverence cued a cold realization.
He was better than I could ever be. And I was what he would never be again. My eyes froze open. Arrogance drained from my face along with any warmth.
MSgt. Rogers looked back over her shoulder, noticing my shock.
“That’s actually your first job.” She stared at him with dour eyes, hiding undercurrents I had yet to understand. “He had a request. If the deceased makes a request in their will, we honor it, no questions asked.”
SSgt. Olsen, a portly though crisp twenty-something, walked over with a pair of new black jump boots. He interjected, “If Johnny wants to be buried in his pink baseball cap, Johnny gets his pink baseball cap.” He extended the boots out to me. “He wanted to be buried with his boots polished.” Olsen looked down to my boots. “You’re hired.”
Rogers added, “Normally the process prevents us from interring members with footwear, but this was his request. We need this ASAP as he leaves tomorrow. Can you get these polished for us?”
I stared starstruck at the boots, then back to the Ranger, sleeping at peace in his open casket. “Yes.” I took the boots from Olsen. They were heavy.
“Great,” Rogers said. “Why don’t you go do that and when you’re done you can come back and get started on the flags.” She pointed behind me to the corner of the room opposite the Ranger. Hundreds of triangle-shaped boxes lined up under a small table upon which rested a stack of American flags. Hundreds, each with a tag pinned to it. I shivered. “Fold them up, put them in the boxes, put the address on the boxes, and we’ll have them sent out when you’re finished.”
“Excuse me Ma’am, can you give me a minute?” I walked between the two to the Ranger. I read his name tag and soaked in the perfection of his dress uniform. I committed it to memory. I saw no wound, no bleeding holes, just quiet, perfect death. I looked at the boots in my hand and then to the black socks on his feet. I thought of everything he’d never do, or be. I felt the dreams and aspirations that still burned the moment before the bomb exploded. I wondered what this man could have otherwise accomplished.
I am your Honor Guard. They will be perfect. I promise.
My jaw tightened. This was no funeral detail or flag-folding ceremony. This was the cold bedrock of honor. This casket was open and the sleeping face before me was real.
These boots were real.
In Honore Et Dignitate
I turned back to the two. “I’ll need clamps. And something to fold on.”
Olsen chimed in, “You can use one of the gurneys. I’ll get you some clamps. Why clamps?”
“So I can latch down the union end of the flag and get a good tight fold.”
“We’ve never done anything like that before,” he said.
“You’re not Honor Guards.”
He smiled at my arrogance. “And that’s why you’re here.”
I looked past Olsen and Rogers to the stack of flags.
Rogers spoke hushed, “You may carry the weight of the dead, Airman Finley, but I hope honor is a horse strong enough to carry you.”
***

Over the ensuing days, I folded every flag. I folded until my hands went raw at the knuckles and bled. I put on white Honor Guard gloves to continue. I bled through them. As I folded their flags, the hundreds of dismembered husks rolled in through the metal garage door to my left and back out from the autopsy room to my right, transformed into decorated heroes. I refused to see them as corpses. Instead, they were my men, my troops, parading their heroism before me. They had names, which I memorized, and stories, which I researched. As they left the gate at Port Mortuary to finish their missions and go home, I made promises to each of them. I stood at attention and saluted.
The Ranger, and the hundreds of others, they were men of honor. I was their Honor Guard. That’s what an Honor Guard does: salutes the dead.
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kerri72
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« Reply #1 on: December 04, 2017, 08:26:40 AM »

You obviously have a very powerful story to tell! My only confusion has to do with the number of fallen soldiers coming in. It sounds like it was an overwhelming amount, yet didn't the casualty rate for US troops average about one a day, or maybe two a day, in 2003? I think you need to explain why they were so backed up in dealing with the bodies and sending out the folded flags. Then the reader can stay involved in the story instead of wondering why the situation is the way it is.


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TimandHonor
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« Reply #2 on: December 04, 2017, 01:15:42 PM »

I think you need to explain why they were so backed up in dealing with the bodies and sending out the folded flags. Then the reader can stay involved in the story instead of wondering why the situation is the way it is.

This is a great point. I never did offer context. I got the call to go to DPM the second week of April. If you remember, we went into Iraq middle/late March. Between the battle for Nasiriya, three helo crashes, and the rush to Baghdad, there were over a hundred casualties in two weeks. This was just OIF, alone. Add in OEF and all the non-combat related deaths that occur day to day, and the spike in casualties inundated the DPM staff. Each casualty gets two flags by congressional mandate--one for immediate family, and one for extended family. Essentially, one for the "wife" and one for the "parents." Do the math, and that's a stack of flags four feet high.
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kerri72
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« Reply #3 on: December 05, 2017, 06:24:44 AM »

Wow, that context helps set the scene so much more clearly - thank you. If you can find a natural way to weave that info into your opening, I think the reader will start out on much more solid footing. Best of luck with this (and thank you for your service!).
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