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Chaplains Corner

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - -- From March 30th to July 2nd I was stationed at the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. The transit center is the staging area for all troops going into and out of the war zone. It was humbling to provide some small comfort to the young men and women of our armed forces who, over the last ten years, have been making daily sacrifices in repeated and dangerous deployments. There are countless stories to tell, but I thought that on this anniversary of 9/11, it would be appropriate to share this story which was my final reflection written on the airplane home from Kyrgyzstan.

My deployment comes to a close with an especially poignant duty. One day last week the command post of the Transit Center at Manas issued a warning order to the wing commander, the Force Support Squadron commander and the Chaplain on Call; "later today a C17 will transition through the Transit Center on a human remains mission. Make all necessary preparations."

A few details come in. The remains will arrive at about 1300 hours. The deceased is a Marine. Paperwork accompanying the human remains will reveal name and rank. The news that the human remains was a Marine is shared with the small platoon of Marines who work here at the Transit Center.

When the C17 makes its first pass over the airfield at 1321 hours under a piercing blue central Asian sky, a considerable welcoming party has assembled. The merciless heat of the sun reflects the brutal circumstances. Sunglasses are stowed; everyone squints. Dozens of personnel have dropped everything to be present.

As the aircraft lands, many of the 376 Expeditionary Maintenance Group are in formation near the parking place where the C17 will come to a stop.

A bus pulls up just as the C17 is touching down. About 20 stone-faced Marines step off the bus, some with untended tears rolling off their defiant cheeks.

Suddenly, just as the aircraft came to a rest in its parking place, all 20 marines broke into an urgent, desperate sprint toward the aircraft. They ran with the fury of Marines coming to the aid of a brother Marine in battle. We all looked on in admiration and sadness.
The cargo ramp of the giant aircraft drops open, slowly, discouragingly. About a dozen weary soldiers, still carrying their weapons in their hands and the stink of Afghanistan on their bodies, shuffle down the ramp with heads deeply bowed.

A van backs up and comes to a halt about 50 feet behind the open ramp. Two columns form a gauntlet. The wing commander calls the formation to attention. I step forward and shout a greeting and read Psalm 23 at the top of my lungs in an effort to be heard over the giant generators of the aircraft. I offer a prayer using the just discovered name of the young Marine. I look out at a column of rock sold Marines, tears streaming down their faces. I step back into formation. The honor guard comes forward. Just as the six honor guard members begin bearing their precious burden, the commander calls "Present Arms" and we all give a slow silent salute. The flag-draped casket is placed in the waiting vehicle, and the commander calls, "Order Arms" and dismisses the formation.

A plan is made for a small team to reassemble at 0300 hours in order to accomplish the same transfer only in reverse. When we arrive at the darkened airfield at 0230 hours, people are already beginning to gather. Nearly a hundred Airmen and Marines have set their alarms for the privilege of accompanying a fallen Marine on his final homeward journey. The ground power unit is shut down; it is a quite and still morning. I read the words of Psalm 139 and they echo off the gray walls of the large cargo aircraft.

"If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there."

"If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast."

"If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you..."

The prayer includes all who have fallen in battle and all who watch and wait back home. The ceremony concludes and this valiant young Marine is on his way home for the last time. It was our sad honor to serve him in this very small way. We linger in the crisp dark morning air as we ponder what we have heard and seen.

The Vice Commander takes my hand, "Chaplain, now you can go home."

"Yes, sir," I say, "I believe I can." But I also know that in truth, I never can.