I’ve been going to church since I was a fetus, and my religion encourages me to actually look forward to death, although if I’m honest I have to say that’s always seemed like an idea you would hold onto if you don’t enjoy living as much as I do. I’m rather fond of living. In fact it’s right at the top of my list of favorite things to do. But until one night in Iraq, the idea of not doing it was something that I could handle too. As it turns out, nothing gives you a reminder of your own mortality like an up close and personal look at somebody else’s.
The Black Hawk helicopter crew I was on that night had been tasked with a mission to pick up two of our friends who had died in a crash at a base near ours. We made the 20-minute flight and were waiting on the tarmac when the ambulance showed up — with no medical personnel to move their bodies, and no gurney to move them on. “Wait, what??” I said to myself. But we each grabbed a corner of the litter and carried them to our aircraft.
Most nights in Iraq we carried everything from cheerleaders to dog food to the General in charge of All the Important Things in Iraq. Tonight there was a body in the back of my helicopter, and it was talking to me. Not, you know, in an out-loud kind of way (at least that’s what I’m telling the psych evaluator if he asks.) But, like, in a “you’re not as invincible as you think you are” kind of way.
“You’re going to crash and die,” is what it said, if you must know.
Being a helicopter pilot is pretty dangerous, so we’re forced early on in our careers to deal with the fact that our jobs could lead directly to our deaths. It’s fair to say that the qualities that point a man or woman towards being a pilot in the first place probably include at least a little bit of an invincibility complex. Even in flight school we’re shown videos of terrible, fatal helicopter crashes and the general response to them is, “Sucks for that guy, but I’m too good of a pilot for that to happen to me.” That’s easy to think sitting in a classroom watching a YouTube video. Carrying the body bag of a man who I had passed in the hallway earlier that day, whose smile I still remember today, whose pleasant laugh was both infectious and frequent, I could feel my ten-year career’s worth of invincibility shatter. And because that invincibility had been so ingrained in my daily life, when it shattered, the splinters were lodged pretty deep in my psyche. It’s amazing how the physical act of carrying this soldier’s body had so quickly turned the mission from an extreme honor into a significant emotional event. But it had.
I didn’t cry (yet), but my heart was heavier than it had been since I had left to go to war. I thought of my children–of what their futures would be like had I been the carried rather than the carrier.
Until now, my war experience was more like the excellent Pauly Shore comedic vehicle, In the Army Now, than Apocalypse Now. I was over there during what I would refer to as the X-Box phase of the war, where everyone had pretty much decided to quit shooting at Americans and mostly were just blowing each other up. We got shot at on a mission once, and then had a fifteen minute conversation in the aircraft about whether we wanted to deal with all the paperwork that would be required if we reported it.
But tonight, two pilots had crashed literally on their way out of the country. They were done, flying out of Iraq to Kuwait, when their helicopter had engine problems they couldn’t recover from.
After picking them up, no one talked for the rest of the mission.
I finally started coming around when the aircraft reached Mosul Airfield where we were stationed. Around seventy or eighty soldiers were waiting for us, mostly consisting of the troop these particular pilots had been a part of, joined by representatives from the entire squadron. As we shut down, the soldiers there formed two lines stretching out towards the two aircraft, facing each other, with enough room in between them for the pilots’ bodies to be carried.
The crews got out of the aircraft and stood on both sides of each cargo door. Here, fortunately, there were mortuary affairs personnel, a wheeled gurney, and pallbearers to do the lifting and carrying. As the remains were removed from our aircraft, our crew rendered a slow salute. Again I felt the extreme honor of what I was doing. And something about the solidarity of those present helped.
It was as the body was making its way down the fifty foot aisleway formed by the saluting soldiers that it occurred to me that all of this pomp and ceremony wasn’t just for the fallen soldiers–it was also for the men and women rendering the honors.
Whether or not I had been picked to hand carry this body tonight, it would have eventually spoken to me. I might not have heard it until the memorial service that was held a few days later. I might not have heard it until we got home and it surfaced in the kind of way that makes some people drink more than usual, and do things that they normally wouldn’t, and get angrier than they would like to be. But it would have come.
Tonight’s ceremony was a chance to begin the closure process. And having my own time together with this warrior’s remains not only made its message to me real, but it made it real in a way that I could talk back.
By the time the gurney was reaching the end of the aisle, ending this leg of its journey that I had shared, the message was still heard.
“You’re going to crash and die,” it still called.
“I am going to die someday,” I said back. “But today I’m going to live.”
CPT Marcus Alford was the fallen warrior in my helicopter that day. He is survived by two wonderful little children. If you’d like to celebrate Memorial Day by thanking them for their sacrifice, you can send a check made out to the CPT Marcus R. Alford Sr. Memorial Scholarship Fund to Regions Bank-Village Green Branch, 1144 Nashville Pike, Gallatin, TN or calling 615.452.5063.
Find me on Twitter @fastacton.