Monday, May 28, 2012

SPC Aaron D. Fields - Guardian



Sadly, I find myself with the most solemn of Memorial Day tributes to express this year.


After nine months of relative calm and a handful of close calls for coalition forces Parwan had a battlefield casualty when a patrol was ambushed and a volley of RPGs one of which struck the driver, specialist Fields, killing him and injuring the other occupants of the sturdy, but not invulnerable MRAP.

By chance I was travelling outside of Parwan and hadn't yet heard the news when I joined a daily briefing shortly after my return. It was unremarkable until it came time for the Command Seargeant Major (CSM) to make any comments. CSMs, whose two main jobs seem to be to look after the enlisted soldiers and to knock them into line seemed to be focused on the second task that night. Soldiers aren't known for their flowery prose, and CSMs often show their creative side in how many four letter words can be contorted into some very colorful tirades. Some soldiers had disrespected some enlisted soldiers doing administrative grunt work in the command building, and he (rightly) went after the underlying attitude of superiority with a vengeance and comparing the risks taken by soldiers in the field and those working in the command center.

It seemed a tad harsh, and I was curious why my eyebrows were the only ones that raised.  Afterwards, a friend told me about the ambush, and it was instantly clear that the no-holds barred effort to get the men in line was fueled by what I have to imagine feels like a failure to look after soldiers when one is lost.

I was surprised, perhaps because to my surprise, the previous unit had finished their tour without losing anybody to the enemy and unconsciously I was thinking I would make through my year keeping the streak alive. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Though the "ramp ceremony" during which the fallen are flown home to their families had occured in my absence, but I was appreciative of being asked to a memorial service a few days later.

Appropriately, the unit that ended up giving me a lift to the ceremony was the one that I knew best, and I was glad to have an opportunity to spend some time with them, hoping to show solidarity, particularly since the soldier came from another part of their larger unit.



Never have I been more conscious of the fact that for all the armor and concrete that is part of daily life here, it is a shield of flesh and bone that really keeps me out of harms way, and which gives Afghans and Afghanistan a chance to break the cycle of violence that has ruined so many lives. Neither have I felt so keenly how inadequate my efforts to foster self-reliance and good governance must seem to soldiers who have lost a brother/sister in arms, and sensed how hurtful it must be when my "wisdom" on governance often amounts to doing nothing and watching the afghans either ignore or struggle with a problem that we feel we could easily "fix". I wanted somehow to convey that their sacrifice has given Afghanistan a opportunity, but whether and how they seize it is something only Afghans can decide. I can only hope that my presence and the comraderie we shared conveyed some of both my gratitude and my conviction that for all the mistakes and uncertainty of the whole endeavor, we are together in a worthwhile enterprise of defending basic human rights and dignity, and attempting to empower the afghan people to be their custodian.

The service itself was a touching mix of ceremony, stoicism, and personal sentiment. Tremendous care was taken in setting up the outdoor stage which served as the chapel. Flanked by the massive MRAPs that specialist Fields loved to drive, the precisely centered main display was the fallen soldier battle cross. A pair of boots, an M-16, helmet and dog tags. A photo stood to the side, an american flag and unit flags stood behind.

Shortly after a helicopter came in, stirring up a huge amount of dust, and depositing a british general who would be the senior representative the ceremony began. The chaplain gave a brief tribute to the young man who loved his job, muscle cars and fishing. Next the battalion commander spoke, focusing on the "soldierly virtue" of SPC Fields and honoring his sacrifice. Then came two of his friends who shared memories of their friend in a clear strong voice, but whose faces and eyes told a different story. I managed to hold my eyes at the glassy stage, only because it somehow felt like the wrong thing for the soldiers here to honor the choice and sacrifice of SPC Fields.

Despite foreknowledge of the ritual, I again had a lump in my throat as the CSM for his company called roll, repeating the name of the fallen when he did not respond, once, and then again, using his full title - Specialist Aaron David Fields. Another soldier called out the details of when and where he was killed.  This was followed by a silence and a tradition whose timing was a surprise - the 21 gun salute. I nearly jumped out of my skin, and was thankful that I managed not to make a sound in my shock.

After a benediction the audience gave their final farewells, passing two by two in front of the battle cross, offering a slow salute, kneeling before it, sometime touching a boot, sometimes leaving a unit coin, then rising to salute again and move out. As my turn came I was doubly grateful to have both a Korean colleague to join me in showing our respect, and a U.S. Embassy coin to leave as I knelt in gratitude for the protection and sacrifice given by Specialist Aaron David Fields - member of Indiana National Guard Military Police Company - The Guardians.

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