Memorial Day often takes me down “hero’s highway.”
This particular highway consisted of about a hundred feet of concrete from the helicopter-landing pad into the back door of the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq.
I was the chaplain there in 2009. I met a lot of heroes, but those I remember today are those whose memorial services I conducted.
We called these sacred soldier ceremonies, “Patriot Details,” and they were usually conducted the hour after a soldier died. I officiated my first one on Jan. 10, 2009, for 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Justin Bauer.
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In the few minutes after Bauer was pronounced dead from a roadside bomb, our hospital commander sent word-of-mouth invitations for “all-hands-available” to quietly assemble in the Emergency Room. Thirty minutes later, I was standing before a hundred hastily assembled staff members, all soldierly quiet, as if waiting for permission to breathe.
From a tight throat, I finally choked something out.
“Staff Sergeant Justin Bauer was one of us. In fact, we are also him. We didn’t know him, but we are less without him today. I believe he knows our presence now as he is now known by God.”
My chaplain assistant, Technical Sgt. David Pastorius, barked, “Ah-ten-SHUN!” and cued the color guard to assemble around the body. They unfolded the American flag and snapped its corners tight, levitated it over Bauer and then released it until it shaped the body with a red-white-and blue silhouette.
Taps played from a CD behind the nurses’ station, salutes were rendered by armed doctors and hardened veterans. The honor guard rolled the body from the emergency room, and I joined them as we made our way into the adjoining morgue.
Minutes later, a Special Forces medic found me outside the morgue with the honor guard.
“Hey, Chaplain. One more thing,” he said. “None of us knew him, but we can still toast a fellow soldier.”
From a knapsack, he pulled a case of “Near Beer,” a product as close to alcohol as we could get in the combat theater. We each took a can and simultaneously popped the lids.
“The first sip is for Bauer,” he declared. “Bauer!” we said.
Then the medic coaxed us to raise our cans above our head.
“We spill the beer the way Bauer spilled his blood,” he said. We turned the cans on their side until several ounces muddied the dirt.
Then the medic raised his can again, and said, “To you. You are my brothers.”
The medic was right. None of us knew him, so we Googled his name in the days after our not-beer ceremony. We read that he was a 2002 graduate of Berthoud High, just north of Denver. He was a paratrooper, third-generation military and a second-generation firefighter.
In between his two tours of Iraq, he married his high school sweetheart, Kari, just three months before his death.
We also learned that he was considered a hometown hero in his civilian role as a firefighter when he resuscitated a woman after a car accident. With that kind of heroics, we weren’t surprised that the military would award him the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Today when people ask why I volunteered to serve in a combat hospital, I can’t easily answer. Mostly, I tell them I needed to be an eyewitness to the honor, character and bravery of these soldiers. I needed to say that I traveled hero’s highway with them and stood on the sacred soil where they died.
Gratefully, 97 percent of our soldier-patients went home on a plane much like mine. The other heroes, like Justin Bauer, went home under a flag. Memorial Day is their day. Remember them always.