KIRKUK, Iraq — A soldier died the other day in Iraq. He was in his early 30s, from Tennessee. The death came in a vehicle accident. His identity is not the point of this article.
More than a dozen soldiers perished last week, and over 1,600 others have preceded them since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003. Every time a servicemember dies in Iraq, no matter the circumstances, the Army and Air Force conduct a “ramp ceremony” to repatriate the remains.
What follows is an account of one such ceremony:
Soldiers learn to wait. They really have little or no choice. In Iraq, that’s not the case when troops die. The aim, according to one Army officer, is to have the servicemember’s remains on a plane and heading home within 24 hours.
Usually, the military makes it happen in about half the time.
The soldier being sent home today awoke on the day of his death in time to see the morning sun. Just before sundown the same day, several hundred troops gathered in his honor to pay their respects and offer a farewell salute.
They came to Kirkuk airfield wearing helmets and battle dress uniforms and soon fell into formation. Few, if any of them, knew him personally. He served in a different brigade, but they came. The mood is somber. There is no pomp, no band, only a unit flag and Old Glory.
After the C-130 lands, it taxis toward the soldiers, and the formations tighten. Except for the aircraft’s engines, there is silence. The distance between the plane and the troops is about 100 yards.
Two forklifts pull up to the rear of the aircraft, which now faces the ensemble. The belly of the plane surrenders cargo pallets and 12 troops, who head for the passenger terminal. The engines stop.
From the nose of the aircraft, the sun is slightly off to the right. Pollution from burning oil wells gives the sky a hazy, yellowish-orange hue, and the sun slips ever closer to the horizon.
An airman grabs a broom from inside the fuselage and sweeps the back of the ramp. Another airman exits the plane, bows forward and splashes water onto his head. For U.S. forces, Iraq has been a baptism of faith — faith in themselves, faith in their fellow soldiers, faith in their country and its ideals.
On command, the assembled soldiers begin to march toward the rear of the plane, some formations four abreast, others more. They create a corridor and wait.
The refrain “present, arms” echoes among the ranks, and all salute. An Army ambulance pulls up to the far end of the corridor. The salutes end, but only for a brief moment as the casket is removed from the back of the wagon.
A slight breeze kicks up. The sun progresses ever so close to settling down for the night as the escort nears the back of the aircraft.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Worster leads the procession. Eight soldiers carry the casket, with a ninth and tenth positioned at the head and feet. Capt. James “Cole” Packwood and 1st Sgt. George Laubhan, both of the Headquarters, Headquarters Company, 116th Brigade Combat Team, follow them.
It’s their first time serving as escorts.
“This is probably one of the proudest things I’ve ever done,” Packwood says later. “Even though it wasn’t one of our soldiers, it felt like it.”
After a soft prayer and hymn, the casket is slowly and solemnly carried onto the plane. The escorts re-emerge and depart the scene.
“All secure, loadmaster,” Packwood says, before he and Laubhan do an about-face and leave the rest to the Air Force.
Commands are given, the formations file back toward a hanger, soldiers disperse. The scene slips away in an instant, much like the setting sun now hugging the horizon.