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Afghan sunset: Fallen soldier memorial

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Nobody respects their fallen like the military.

One of the honors given to a large command and its senior Non Commissioned Officer is to plan and hold a memorial service for soldiers or servicemen and women who have sacrificed their life for their country and its ideals.

On May 25, 2008, Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, Kabul Afghanistan held a Fallen Soldier Memorial Service for Master Sergeant Davy N. Weaver who died in combat in Southern Afghanistan.

If you have never seen a ceremony for a fallen soldier, there is nothing quite like it. When preparations are made, all the many participants carefully prepare their part to achieve a balance of personal impact and solemn dignity.

To set the scene, Patriot Square in Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan is a large open rectangular area surrounded by Simple wooden camp buildings. To the north and centered in front of a large dining facility are fifteen flagpoles with our national colors at half staff, followed by the flags of other coalition nations which are also serving in Afghanistan

There is a steady breeze which helps to display the colors. In the center of the square and set in front of the flagpoles is a memorial to Davy Weaver. It consists of an M-4 rifle with bayonet attached set vertically into a varnished wooden box, bayonet down. On top of the butt of the rifle is a helmet with the rank of Master Sergeant on it and hanging below it are a set of dog tags. There is a pair of combat boots, a Bronze Star Medal, a Purple Heart Medal and a photograph of Davy Weaver in a dress uniform up front. Directly behind are the posted the crossed flags of the United States of America and the Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix VII flapping restlessly in the warm breeze.

Directly behind this memorial is a granite plaque which reads “In remembrance of and dedicated to the victims of the attacks on 11 September 2001 and the men and women serving bravely in the war on terrorism to ensure freedom’s light will never be extinguished. The Coalition Soldiers of CJTF Phoenix have dedicated a piece of the  World Trade Center  here on 11 September 2003, Operation Enduring Freedom, past, present and future.”

There are a few neat rows of chairs occupied by Commanders and Senior Non Commissioned Officers. The large formation in rows of troops fills the plaza. The ranks have been pushed forward to the back of the chairs to accommodate the size of the formation. It appears that every available Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman is here. Romanian and French soldiers who live on the camp are present, as well as some civilians who work here, many I suspect by their manner are former military. What does not fit into the formation in the square spills into the walks and alleys that lead to it. Off to one side are seven soldiers of the Firing Party, rifles at their side, waiting silently.

The ceremony begins and we honor our nation. It’s followed by an invocation from the Chaplain and an absolutely stunning acapella Ave Maria from a young civilian woman who at the last minute volunteered to replace a suddenly ill soldier who was originally to sing.

From the podium I recount the career of Davy Weaver, his service in combat, this, his third tour, and his awards. He is survived by a wife and five children, the youngest a two year old daughter, Ellanor. We observe a moment of silence.

The Commander then spoke and noted that Weaver “volunteered to extend his tour to serve with our team… At the time of his death, he was going the extra mile for his country, this mission and the people of Afghanistan. What motivated him to stay; to do even more than he had already accomplished, may be best known only to himself, his family and his closest comrades.”

The Chaplain said that “…crashes don’t crush spirits. America has her heroes and heroines. Some of them are sitting right here right now. One of them…Davy Weaver is not here physically but is in our head’s hard drive. Fallen Soldiers may compress our spirits, wound our hearts, but with great resilience and strong resolve we bounce back. We are made that way. We let the words and the pictures, and the stories inspire us. We pray too, we take risks too, we pick up (Todd) Beamer’s banner and (take up) Weaver’s position and we roll into the War on Terrorism. We roll- picking up of the banner and carry on the fight. And that is what we never ever want to forget!”

The ceremony ends with a sequence of events that I will describe but must be experienced to be felt.

A First Sergeant is called forward and ordered to call the roll. He barks out a soldiers name and the soldier answers up loudly “here First Sergeant!”, then a second name, “here First Sergeant!, and a third name “here First Sergeant!”.

Then he calls out…"Master Sergeant Weaver, Davy, N" followed by a pause,  "Master Sergeant Weaver, Davy, N"  … "Master Sergeant Weaver, Davy, N. "   Silence. All the service members salute and the Firing Party immediately goes into action by command of their Sergeant, mechanically firing three volleys from seven rifles over the formation of troops. Each volley is a violent reminder of the dangers faced by service members here at war. The Firing Party presents their arms in respect of Davy Weaver as Taps begins to play, echoing off of the warm evening concrete. The melody is sad and slow and there is no other sound.

By this time the sun is low in the sky and dusk softens the rigid rows of soldiers standing at attention. There is only one thing left to do. The Commander, the Chaplain and I move together to the front of the memorial to Davy Weaver and salute, bringing our arms up slowly, respectfully, not the usual crisp movement. We pause and slowly lower our salutes, then kneel in unison, and we pray. We all touch some part of the memorial with our hands  and slowly rise together, salute once more and march away. This is all a bit surreal, as if in slow motion.

The crowd is invited to pay their respects and they do, approaching the memorial in small groups, with dignity, saluting and praying, until it is dark. Some cry.

After all have mourned, the colors are folded and the memorial is disassembled and carefully put away, may they never be used again.

— David Piwowarski

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