Roll Call - Honoring Those Who Don't Return from War

In honor of Memorial Day, here is an essay I wrote about the roll call formation that happens when a soldier doesn't return home from war.

Roll Call
You are about halfway through your year-long deployment to Iraq, just enough time to think you've gotten used to it. You are conducting 24-hour operations for a high-priority mission in a tiny, four-room building about 40 miles away from the majority of your unit when you hear the news, and you return on the next convoy.

Back at the base, everyone is in full battle rattle--flak vest with shields, Kevlar, slung weapon, eight 30-round magazines. There is no milling around or open chatting--everyone is silent and somber.

You spiral up the staircase to the female barracks and drop your gear. The soldier lost is a female, and only in the privacy of their sleeping quarters do the other women of the unit feel safe enough to show their emotions. You hear the full story and are horrified. You hear how she was pulling duty twelve hours a day out in the cities. How she was shot at so often it stopped fazing her. That it was her first day off in twenty, and she was laughing with her mom on the phone.

Yes. She was laughing with her mom on the phone when a rocket came from across the Tigris River and turned the area where she stood to rubble. The girls who rushed to her rescue, whose valorous attempts could not save her life, wail when they tell the story.

You imagine your mom after hearing, from across the world, the blast that killed you.

You take cues from the rest and respectfully keep your distance from her cot, from her bags, from her movies, from her plush blanket, from the taped-up pictures of her family, and head down the marble staircase to consider lunch and be ready for roll call. You don't know what to expect, having seen this sort of formation only in the movies. All you know for sure is that this roll call happens when soldiers are killed, to acknowledge the fallen soldier's contribution to her country.

It is not a mandatory formation. Soldiers line up if they think they can hold it together, but they are also permitted to hang back in the background. You stand in the back but can still see that in front are her boots, weapon, dog tags, and helmet. The first sergeant calls out "Roll Call" and everyone snaps to attention, standing as still as possible in the stifling heat.

An accountability formation is held and every soldier's name is called out one by one, and a response of "Here, Sergeant Major" is quietly called in return. Then the sergeant major calls out her name. The whole place is silent. Even the generators seem to drone more softly. He calls her name a second time. Again, no response. He calls her name, her full name and rank, a third and final time.
The first sergeant steps forward and responds with her full name, her rank, and that she was killed in action the day before in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

You won't remember the words the sergeant major uses to characterize her, her value, her contributions, and her sacrifice. You will vaguely remember his urging to never forget this member of your army family and to pull together with the rest of your brothers and sisters in arms to grieve and continue to move forward. You wonder if he is thinking about her mother too.

* * * * *
When the deployment is over and you finally return home, you attend one final roll call formation for your unit. This formation is attended by the families of those who did not return. Your unit is "lucky" to have only one name called on this day.

Her family's grief is the only sound you hear during the calling of her name. Her sister's gasping, her father's silent shoulder shaking, her brother's quiet screaming inside his hands that are covering his face, and her mother's strangled sobs. Well-meaning yet insufficient words are said about her bravery, about her kindness, and about her sacrifice.

How different this feels from the roll call six months prior. Out there, there is no relief, no time to even pause and feel, because you still have to be aware and present every moment to continue trying to survive. And now you have. But she has not.

Your tears fall as you remember your friend smiling, laughing. And you know, that the last chapter of her life will always be a part of this chapter of yours.

* * * * *
Have a great Memorial Day weekend, and make sure to take a moment to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in support of their country.

This story was originally published on in 2014.