In Memoriam

The ceremony will begin in five minutes.

Rows of metal foldout chairs are arranged neatly in the center of a long rectangular room. At the far end, flanked on either side by personnel standing at parade rest, two soldiers stand on either side of a Marine; the American and Marine Corps flags are displayed behind them. The remaining open chairs rapidly fill with men in a variety of uniforms: Marines and soldiers in camouflage utilities, Iraqi police in their blue button-up shirts with dark trousers, and interpreters in tan flight suits. Despite the number of people crammed into the small space — a part of the Ramadi Government Center — almost no one is talking. Iraqi men and women in civilian dress tread the halls outside taking care of business under the strict gaze of Marine guards dispersed throughout the building.

The unit’s senior enlisted Marine marches to the middle of the room and calls the formation to attention. The commanding officer takes charge and reads a posthumous promotion warrant, his voice booming off the heavy concrete walls. He leaves after finishing the citation and the chaplain takes his place, leading the group with an invocation. Muslim and Christian alike bow their heads as the chaplain commends the valor of the military in Iraq, reaffirms the rightness of their actions, and asks God for wisdom and strength in the continuance of the mission. He finishes and the prayer hangs silently in the air for about ten seconds, then everyone snaps back to attention as the national anthem plays.

The three men standing in front of the flag display begin to move as the Marine Corps Hymn starts. The first places an M16A2 upside-down into a stand and then returns to his place. The second has a Kevlar combat helmet he carefully rests on the weapon’s buttstock. The third puts a pair of boots in front of the rifle, adjusts them, and hangs a set of dogtags off the weapon’s magazine well. The display complete, they face to the right and march slowly to their places in the formation’s rear. Everyone is told to take their seats.

Scriptural passages are read by Marines in the unit; these are printed in the pamphlet given out, and the Arabic translation can be heard being whispered to the more senior Iraqi officials by their interpreters. Next follows a series of remarks by various officers: an Iraqi general, two Marine colonels, and then the next highest-ranking member of the affected unit. He is listed only as the “Team Officer,” but everyone knows for now he is the replacement.

Next come the personal reflections: these are a combination of humorous stories, personal prayers, and well wishes to the family. Each Marine shares a uniquely defining moment in their relationship with a leader, a man, and a friend. Chuckles ripple throughout the assembled group as fond remembrances strike a chord; other times a different tone brings a collective sadness, reminding everyone why they’re here. Several people speak, all the way from officers to junior NCO, showing this one Marine’s impact on the full spectrum of warriors.

The chaplain stands up now and speaks at length about faith, justice, and the afterlife. His tone is different than the others: a calmness or serenity reverberates from every well-measured word. The combination of Biblical text and eloquent delivery overwhelms a few; throat-clearings and sniffing increase markedly in a vain attempt to forestall the building sense of grief. After a few minutes, a Navy corpsman replaces the chaplain and delivers the Marine’s Prayer, which everyone repeats aloud. The final “Amen” rings out, and everyone steels themselves for roll call.

The senior enlisted Marine stands again, marching to the center of the formation in front of the flag and rifle display; he begins calling out names, finally coming to the one missing.

Rank, last name.

Rank, first name, last name.

Rank, first name, middle initial, last name.

He executes an about face, turning his head slightly downward to focus on the memorial. A soldier standing nearby raises a trumpet to his lips and plays “taps,” its volume and gravity overwhelming the audience in such a small room. Many lose their composure at this point, holding the position of attention until “taps” is complete but then quickly wiping away tears.

A line forms, working its way past every single member of the Marine’s unit, and all assembled pass through to pay their respects individually. Exactly halfway through the formation is the rifle display where people speak to the deceased: many of the Iraqis stand solemnly with their right hands over their hearts, a sign of respect; most of the Americans kneel and either place their hand on the helmet or finger the dogtags, whispering a prayer, an expression of love, or a promise; some stand back up and salute before moving on to finish paying their respect to the rest of the unit.

The ceremony is over now, and as the assembled make their way out of the room, the occasional lone man steps out of line, turns around, fixes his gaze back toward the other end of the room, and cries.

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