Coming Home

Seven families lay their fallen soldiers to rest.
Coming Home

For a moment, imagine the coffins empty, the burial grounds free of people, free of despair. Imagine the young men and their young bodies doing the work of youth. Imagine the parents watching a television drama or chatting on the porch with their neighbors. Pretend the death-folded flags are stacked on a sergeant’s supply shelf, gathering dust rather than grief. This is, of course, a foolish and dangerous game. It’s the game the Bush administration would prefer we play, but more corpses are en route, and more broken bodies, shattered psyches, damaged souls.

My combat death fantasies began before I joined the Marine Corps. They started with Platoon, and the not-so-friendly-fire casualty of Sergeant Elias, his arms outstretched in martyrdom and splendor. Willem Dafoe’s character had fought both the Viet Cong and the Army’s own demons with veracity and courage. Good men die tragically, and the best die in combat. I’d grown up around the military, and, without being aware of it, internalized the military’s obscene power and culture. I had pallets full of honor and sacrifice waiting on the docks, manifested for shipment to lands foreign, dangerous, and strange. My father had survived combat in Vietnam, but I might go fight for my country and die, tragically and heroically—I’d die in the storied bloody fields of American history where my father had not.

By the time I arrived in Saudi Arabia to fight in the 1991 Gulf War, my fantasies had been replaced by the very real facts that surrounded me, in the buildup of troops and the matériel carried on my body: rifle, pistol, grenades, a radio with which I might call in 500-pound bombs. I was here to kill, and people on the other side of that sand berm wanted to kill me. The romance of a combat death evaporates when combat arrives.

I wonder, then, when the men and woman whose burials we see in these photographs lost their romantic attachment to combat, killing, and death, their own death and the deaths of others. Be certain that at some point they entertained such fantasies. Perhaps only for a few days of basic training; possibly, like me, until they landed in theater.

Most combat fatalities are neither storied nor spectacular. Spc. Martin Kondor and Spc. Bert Hoyer died while traveling in vehicles that were hit with improvised explosive devices (IED), as the military calls them, or roadside bombs, which is a clearer definition. Kondor acted as a bodyguard for an infantry colonel whose job it was to spread American good will to the Iraqi people. The colonel was fortunate enough to survive. Pfc. Luis Moreno was shot while guarding a gas station. Dominican by birth, he was awarded U.S. citizenship posthumously. Staff Sgt. Scott Rose died when the Black Hawk helicopter he served on went down. The Humvee that Pvt. Bryan Nicholas Spry was driving crossed a bridge that crumbled under the vehicle. Three of his comrades swam to safety, but Spry was unconscious, and his lungs filled with water. Pfc. Bruce Miller, Jr. died from a noncombat gunshot wound; his death is still under investigation. Less than two years had passed since Army cook Spc. Tyanna Avery-Felder married Spc. Adrian Felder. She also died from an IED while driving in a convoy, reportedly delivering meals to troops, meals she hadn’t prepared because the Army had hired civilian contractors to do the cooking. Nothing like being cooked out of your job by the lowest bidder. (At the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood, U.S. Marine Corps band members were initially called into duty as riflemen, but when the commanding officer realized he was losing his horn players at an alarming rate, he orderedthe band back to headquarters—they were needed for a Fourth of July parade in Paris a few weeks later.)

The colleagues of these fallen would have been asked to pack their personal belongings for shipment home. Long before they were killed, the dead would have been advised to discard any paraphernalia they didn’t want people back home to receive. Every soldier carries a private self that even his closest loved ones will never know. And they should not. Shortly after their deaths, the unit armorer assigned their weap-ons to someone else in the battalion, a new guy. Imagine receiving a dead man’s rifle for your first combat patrol. The combatant dies, but his killing tools are passed on. The flag-draped coffins arrive at Dover Air Force Base prior to being shipped to their burial locations. If a military burial is chosen, soldiers from a local unit will perform the ceremony. It is unlikely that the dead soldier would have known these people. His friends are back in Iraq. Soldiers in this war have died in all four seasons. Some burials have taken place in the bitter cold, and during others it’s been warm enough for women to wear light dresses. But the end result is the same: a body in the ground, a family struck with grief, a mother or sister or wife or husband holding a flag folded in the tight red, white, and blue triangle that means death.