“Attention. There will be a Fallen Comrade ceremony in five minutes. PT clothing, sunglasses and photography are not authorized. I say again, there will be a Fallen Comrade ceremony …”
It is 2:30 a.m. and the fourth consecutive night the base’s public-address system awakens us. I struggle out of bed into some presentable clothes, then walk out the door into the night. “Sunglasses?”
For six months in 2008 I had a civilian job in the public-affairs office at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. It was challenging but not very dangerous—especially compared with the jobs held by officers and enlisted soldiers who fought the Taliban or built schools or trained their Afghan counterparts. They frequently left Bagram and other bases on missions, and some were killed.
Their remains would quickly be transported to Bagram, where the dead would be honored with a traditional Fallen Comrade ceremony before being flown home. Since most military flights to the U.S. left early in the morning, Fallen Comrades tended to occur between midnight and 5 a.m.
Summoned out into the darkness by that amplified voice, thousands of soldiers and civilians would line the base’s main road, stand nearly shoulder to shoulder, and quietly wait. After five or 10 or 20 minutes, one or more flatbed Humvees would approach, rumbling toward Bagram’s airfield, each with a single flag-draped coffin perfectly squared in the back.
As these vehicles slowly approached, military personnel saluted crisply while civilians placed one hand over our hearts. Once the Humvees passed, everyone slowly dropped their arms and dispersed toward their quarters or offices.
During one summer week there were four Fallen Comrades in as many nights. Usually just one or two soldiers had died, but sometimes it was more and on one surreal occasion, nine coffins glided past.
The Fallen Comrades’ timing meant people usually headed to breakfast shortly after, or else tried to squeeze in a couple hours of sleep. On those mornings I would shower and walk to the dining hall thinking, The guys in those coffins won’t get to have eggs and bacon and coffee today. They thought they would, they were sure of it.
Since returning to the U.S., I have stayed acutely aware that something—pick any random incident—might keep me from making it to breakfast tomorrow.
But this hardly means I live in fear. Instead, I pay more attention to the here and now, try more things I might not have tried, and generally pack a bit more intensity into each day.
My realization that life is short is nothing new, and it doesn’t transform me into a perfect husband or a spectacular writer or drive me to become a billionaire. It doesn’t make the bad things that happen in life better.
But I do feel everything about life more, whether “life” is going well or seems to be falling apart, and I’m determined to keep on feeling more and doing more against the day I finally don’t make it to breakfast.
Paul D. Kretkowski consults about opportunities and security challenges the U.S. faces, and writes frequently about the role of “soft power” in international relations. He lives in Kensington, Md.