Memorial Day often takes me down “hero’s highway.”
This particular highway consisted of about a hundred feet of concrete from the helicopter-landing pad into the back door of the Air Force field hospital in Balad, Iraq.
I remember it well. I was the chaplain there in 2009. I met a lot of heroes, but those I remember today are those whose memorial services I conducted.
We called these sacred soldier ceremonies “Patriot Details,” and they were usually conducted the hour after a soldier died. I officiated my first one on Jan. 10, 2009, for 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Justin Bauer.
In the few minutes after Bauer was pronounced dead from a roadside bomb, our hospital commander sent word-of-mouth invitations for “all-hands available” to quietly assemble in the emergency room. Thirty minutes later, I was standing before a hundred hastily assembled staff members, all soldierly quiet, as if waiting for permission to breathe.
If the staff were expecting me to grant that permission, they’d keep waiting. I was having respiratory difficulties of my own, overcome by a self-imposed demand to make sense of it all.
Hoping to find the right words, I patted my pockets, seemingly looking for my pastoral insight. I felt like a little boy digging for the candy money that emptied through a hole in my pocket. All my wisdom had escaped through a crack in my soul.
I closed my eyes and silently begged God to give me something to say and to let my fears pass.
My fears didn’t pass, but I did feel some inspiration as I remembered a former supervisor who was fond of quoting Carl Jung’s description of the “Wounded Healer.” The old chaplain often said that it was a chaplain’s “own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal.”
I thought about the hurt my family would feel if this were my death, and I asked myself what I would want said. From a tight throat, I finally choked something out.
“Staff Sergeant Justin Bauer was one of us. In fact, we are also him. We didn’t know him, but we are less without him today. I believe he knows our presence now as he is now known by God.”
I closed the 15-minute ceremony with Scripture and a prayer, even as I wondered if I should have said more. How could it be enough? But it had to be. It was all I had.
My chaplain assistant, Technical Sgt. David Pastorius, barked, “Ah-ten-SHUN!” and cued the color guard to assemble around the body. They unfolded the American flag and snapped its corners tight, levitated it over Bauer and then released it until it shaped the body with a red-white-and-blue silhouette.
Taps played from a CD behind the nurses’ station, salutes were rendered by armed doctors and hardened veterans. The honor guard rolled the body from the emergency room, and I joined them as we made our way into the adjoining morgue.
A few minutes later, a special forces medic found me talking outside the morgue with the honor guard.
“Hey, Chaplain. One more thing,” he said. “None of us knew him, but we can still toast a fellow soldier.”
From a knapsack, he pulled a case of “Near Beer,” a product as close to alcohol as we could get in the combat theater. We each took a can and simultaneously popped the lids. The bursting lids reminded me of the synchronized breaking of Communion wafers during worship.
“The first sip is for Bauer,” he declared.
“Bauer!” we said.
Then the medic coaxed us to raise our cans above our head.
“We spill the beer the way Bauer spilled his blood,” he said. The moment had all the liturgy of a Sunday Mass. We turned the cans on their sides until several ounces muddied the dirt.
Then the medic raised his can again, and said, “To you. You are my brothers.”
His words reminded me of a priest raising the wine chalice and quoting Jesus: “This is my blood, which was spilled for you.”
The medic was right. None of us knew him, so we googled his name in the days after our not-beer ceremony. We read that he was a 2002 graduate of Berthoud High, just north of Denver. He was a paratrooper, third-generation military and a second-generation firefighter.
In between his two tours of Iraq, he married his high school sweetheart, Kari, just three months before his death.
We also learned that he was considered a hometown hero in his civilian role as a firefighter when he resuscitated a woman after a car accident. With that kind of heroics, we weren’t surprised that the military would award him the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Seven years ago this month, when I boarded my return flight to Sacramento, my replacement asked me where I found the emotional stamina to conduct nine Patriot Details. I told him that if people like Justin could do their job under the conditions they endured, then it was the least I could do to honor them.
Today when people ask me why I volunteered to serve in a combat hospital, I can’t easily answer them. Mostly, I tell them I needed to be an eyewitness to the honor, character and bravery of these soldiers. I needed to say that I traveled hero’s highway with them and stood on the sacred soil where they died.
Gratefully, more than 97 percent of our soldier-patients went home on a plane much like mine. The other heroes, like Justin Bauer, went home under a flag. Memorial Day is their day. Remember them always.
Norris Burkes is a Sacramento hospice chaplain and the author of “Hero’s Highway.” He retired from the Air National Guard in 2014. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @chaplain. He wrote this for The Sacramento Bee.