Andrews Air Force Base 2001-2004
I washed out of Survival Instructor school (because I'm a habitual failure) and reclassed into Communications Systems Control, e.g. the single most outdoor job in the DoD to the single-most indoor job. I raced through qualification training so I could be eligible for Honor Guard duty, and joined the Base team in the late summer of 2001. On 7 September, I earned my Honor Guard cookie (the cirlce badge). On September 11th, I watched the Pentagon burn with my own eyes. Being an Honor Guard in Washington D.C. molded what was beforehand a patriotic boy--truly his nation's son--into the personification of the post-9/11 zeitgeist. Like all things pre-9/11, I was simpler, arrogant, and blissfully ignorant. I had never truly seen or experienced death. Like all things after, I became foggy and complicated, whistfully wiser, and committed to righteous decisions in the aftermath that would later haunt me for years to come. How's that for allegory?
K-State - Salina
Although costumed as a talentless boyband front man, I had what some might consider a redeeming understanding and appreciation of patriotism at a time when it wasn't boyband-level popular. Jingoist, I think, is probably the word for it, but I felt there was honor in it... or whatever that word meant to the Backstreet reject pictured above.
They'll promote anyone.
After earning SrA Below-the-Zone (BTZ), I tested for and made SSgt, sewing on in April of 2004. What's of interest here, aside from the wild transformation in hairstyle over 4 years, is this is not my official Honor Guard photo. This was my official photo after making E-5. I never took any official photo in any uniform except my ceremonials. When the photographer said "I don't have any Honor Guard photos on the schedule," I replied, "I haven't had anything else on my schedule for the last 3 years."
Memorial Day 2004
Arlington National Cemetery
I was an escort for Gen. Peter Pace and his family at President Bush's address on Memorial Day, 2004. This photo is incredibly special to me for a couple reasons. First, the stone before me is one of my very first folded flags. He was an AF MSgt whose flag I folded for display in a shadowbox. Behind me, in the most distant background is Section 60--where laid to rest are all of my men from Dover. I didn't realize it until years later, after the photo was taken. This photo was the last time I ever wore the ceremonials into Arlington, and the last time I visited my men for the next 14 years.
2002-2005? 06? 07? 08?
Christ. I don't even know where to begin or end here. Which I guess is kind of the story. Becky and I started dating in the Spring of 2002. That much is certain. She was far and away one of the most outstanding Airmen in the Air Force inventory, earning more accolades and awards than Audie Freakin-Murphy. Airman-of-the-Everything, basically. Wicked smart with devilish humor, she had a fantastic singing voice, keen self-awareness, and her words spilled out with ruthless honesty that riveted my attention. Becky applied chapstick compulsively, lauded herself as graceful after repeatedly falling down flights of stairs, perpetually claimed she was "ferocious," and sipped shots of Tequila. She liked me for me, not because I looked like Tyson Beckford with the charm of Robert Redford oozing out my ears. She was as fun as she was frank and as sharp as she was beautiful. I respected her courage, her ethic, her passion, and her candor--and her smile.
To this day, we remain close friends, and uniquely so--most likely due to our shared life experiences of high achievement and crushing defeats, but also... death experiences, namely, Dover. You see, Becky worked Air Force Services, which sounds benign, until you realize that Mortuary Affairs is part of that. She deployed to Dover in support of multiple events: USS Cole, 9/11, Columbia disaster, OEF, and OIF. In all, she provided autopsy support nearly a dozen times. She always returned with new ribbons, but you don't just come back from Dover with ribbons. You come back with ribbons and memories, but ribbons come off when the uniform comes off. Memories don't.
Becky was why I went to Dover, why I even had the chance to volunteer. Mortuary Affairs and Honor Guard--a match made in... somewhere really, really bleak. We went to Dover together, and in a way, we stayed there. And that part of us that stayed is the undying dark fiber that keeps our friendship quantum entagled across the universe.
We broke up in 2005. Then again in 2007. There's much to say here, and it's as fucking complicated as it is complex. We grew apart--but we didn't. You'll see.
We were young once.
Flag Day, 2004
Andrews Air Force Base
The mob boss over my right shoulder is Air Force Secretary James [O]G. Roche. He took time out of his busy gangsta schedule of bombing the shit out of Iraq to watch us hoist a flag up the pole at Andrews.
Pentagon - Hall of Heroes
After piloting to a safe landing following an in-flight emergency, combat deployments, rampaging wild horses, and kneeling to propose marriage, I can fairly say nothing scared me like the marble floors at the Pentagon.
And nothing tried harder to kill me. The flag stands weigh 40 lbs. a piece, the rifles weigh 12 lbs. a piece. The flags are cumbersome. The metal taps on our soles turned us into drunken, encumbered ice skaters.
"Be perfect," they said. "It'll be fun," they said. No purple hearts or medals with V-devices were awarded.
Also, my hair is dumb-long in this photo. It's embarrassing in retrospect. But that flag though... perfect.
To this day, I'm not sure how this all happened. I won every award you can win at Airman Leadership School. Becky, who coincidentally was in the same class, earned Distinguished Graduate right behind me. We hid our relationship from the class until the very end--you know, professionalism and all that. I got into the class as an alternate because I was a BTZ E-4, making me literally the lowest-ranking (by time in service) student.
Becky and I joke often about that experience, but we have at times waxed introspective about it. It would later prove to be a poignant moment, a defining one for both of us. I shrugged and said, "I don't know why I won it."
"Where you lead, good men follow." She said.
"At their peril." I joked. In truth... something in the back of my mind didn't want to believe her. But those words, repeated years later, would mean life and death.
Dover Port Mortuary
I don't have any photos from Dover.
I don't fucking want any.
I worked there just before they built the new facility. The old facility, a holdover from Cold War days, was square and modest, with nothing indicating it was what it was aside from the hearses coming and going. I remember that it rained a lot that spring. I remember the facility smell and how that smell mixed with the smell of rain when the garage doors opened. The receiving area was small, not much larger in square footage than a three car garage, and looked similar. After entering the building you walked past front offices, and then took a left into a long room with an equally long table. Down the entire length of the room, ribbons, patches, and any accouterment the DoD issued hung on the wall. Uniforms rested in various stages of being puzzled together on the centerline table.
Remains were rolled in on gurneys through the garage door and into autopsy--where I never went or even looked beyond a side-eye glance. I avoided looking like it was an SAP program I wasn't read in on. Which was stupid since I didn't need to look. They rolled right past me, one after the next, literally inches from the table upon which I folded their respective flags. They were rolled in from a holding facility immediately next door that was somewhere between the size of a large garage and a grade school gym. This is where I did look. I couldn't help it. This was the image that etched the reality in my memory.
Wrapped in gauze.
I pretended it was my job, and acted as professional as everyone else did. I wonder now if they all pretended too... because everyone else was pretending. The sense of somber respect floating in the air was another scent in the air that no one ever talked about, but was equally powerful.
They kept the overhead door half-opened with large fans blowing out the opening. Personnel sat outside the door with binoculars, watching the fence line across the airfield, scanning for reporters and media trying to get pictures. This was amid the very public debate about photographing flag-draped caskets.
I never understood why that was an argument. They were heroes... at least my heroes, and I was in awe; I assumed everyone was.
To be fair, these were neither caskets nor flag-draped. And that's why I was there. Flags. I assisted with a few uniforms here and there, but the preponderance of my duties while there was just folding flags. I used a gurney and clamped down a "table-top" (two lengthwise folds) flag on one end and folded the 13 triangle folds myself. I did in fact fold flags until my knuckles bled. What I never told anyone was the embarrassment and shame I felt for it. The blood seemed laughable and insignificant. It was the first moment where I began to feel like I could never bleed enough to make it right.
What's not in the book is that I kept a list of every name. I carried that sheet of paper in my wallet until 2007. It was in my pocket when I pinned my Lieutenant rank on. I had it in my flight suit for my first flight as an Air Force pilot.
Dover was a weird superposition of superpositions. Beauty and horror. A cognitive dissonance of honor and shame. Dead heroes that never die. I can never take Dover back, but I would never take it back. I left Dover, but I never really left Dover. My men left the gate in hearses, but they never went home. Dover poisoned something in me, but also inoculated something in me. It weakened my mind but strengthened my heart.
I went to Dover because I couldn't get in the fight. 15 years later, it would be Dover that kept me in the fight.
And it all started with Capt. Russell B. Rippetoe. ...and his boots.
Memorial Day, 2018
Arlington National Cemetery
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//What Do I Say? I’ve folded flags. I’ve knelt and passed them. I’ve also been on the business end of killing. But I am still here. I’ve preached for years to not say “Thank you for your service” on Memorial Day. The phrase is never unappreciated, but the purpose of the day is in remembering the ones not with us. And there’s this haunt in the back of our brains that gets pinched when *we* get thanked. It’s not about us. We are still here. You can often see the confusion on the face of the speaker—empathy at a loss for something better to say. So what *does* one say? For years, even as an Honor Guard, I didn’t know. I’ve ruminated on this for over a decade. I don’t have any flowery prose or metaphors on this one. But I think I found it. I folded flags of men who are not here and served alongside men who are not here. They were all better men than I. Every time, the widow’s stare ripped a hole through my heart when I knelt with his flag. They would have traded me for him. ...I wish they knew... I would have too. But I am still here. In dark moments I remember every fold and every tear that fell onto those flags. Every friend. Every brother. Every name. Every sacrifice that I never made. The name on this headstone saved my life—almost a decade after I folded his flag. He is not here. He has two BSMs, including one with Valor. And I know that his boots are mirror polished. He was a better man than I. But I am still here. I am here... but not alone. I know I am not the only one that feels it, the at-least itch of guilt and at-worst suffocation. *Because* I am still here. On Memorial Day, don’t thank a veteran for his service. Instead, say this, and I’ll say it to all my veteran friends: “I’m glad you are here.” #memorialdayweekend #allgavesomesomegaveall #veteran #22tillnone #heroes #usa #sacrifice #honor #memorialday #honorthefallen #army #ranger #arlington #arlingtonnationalcemetery #remember
Algonquian for "Freedom." Will was a high-content wolf hybrid mixed with Shepherd. He was massive, eating himself north of 170lbs at one time (with the assistance of my dad, his chief accomplice). Will's eyes drilled holes through strangers and made more than one visitor at the door soil themselves. He didn't cuddle much, and never embarrassed himself with shameless affection. Such "dog" things were beneath him. Although, he did demand belly rubs as payment for his protective services. He sang in deep baritones and wooed women by being noticeably gentle around them. He slaughtered rabbits which he was kind enough to share with his pack by leaving entrails on the back deck for us to enjoy. What a pal.
I had never had a dog like Will. He was impossible to train, impossible to bathe, impossible to beat in a wrestling match, and impossibly loyal. I complained about him incessantly, the shedding, the climbing up on my bed, the random dead animals. Beneath all the bemoaning though, I was proud of him beyond words.
Lackland AFB, 320th TRS, Flt 680
First element leader. From the short TI on the right, follow that row to the end. Baby Airman Finley
Did I ever say shit about horses.
There never was.
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