When you’re embedded with the military in a place like Afghanistan, you can spend a lot of time waiting.
And so it was last Thursday. We had been embedded with U.S. and Canadian forces inside Kandahar City for a week, and we were awaiting a military flight back to Kabul.
Our transport – a C-130 Hercules – was still two hours away from arriving, so we settled in at the rather basic “departure lounge” at the huge Kandahar Air Force base – known to the military as simply "KAF."
After 45 minutes or so, we noticed soldiers drifting from the waiting area to the outside gate, standing there, looking out.
I wandered over, curious about what was unfolding. A giant transport jet (I think it was a Galaxy C-5) was parked on the apron, with an MRAP armored vehicle parked nearby. Speakers and a podium were set up near the jet.
Soon, troops started to muster and then gather in formation. Commands were shouted, and, one by one, the units marched towards the plane, lining up near its yawning rear ramp. I could make out U.S., British, Australian, Canadian and Dutch uniforms, but I think there were others as well.
The soldiers kept coming, marching into position. Soon there were several hundred, standing in formation and in silence, along with perhaps 50 civilians.
We were watching a "ramp ceremony," the return of a fallen soldier’s remains back home – in this case, a U.S. service member.
I still don’t know who it was or how he or she died, and neither did most of those standing at attention. They were here out of respect, solidarity with a comrade.
Ceremonies like this are held any time someone is killed in the theater of war, be it Afghanistan or Iraq, whether it’s one service member or many.
The aim is to have the remains of the fallen on the way home within 24 hours.
Attendance at these ceremonies is voluntary, and KAF, being a large and very multi-national base, attracted a large turnout of people, most of whom would not have known this casualty of war.
In nearly a dozen trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan, I’d never seen one in person before.
An American sergeant standing next to me said it was considered an honor to attend such occasions, no matter the nationality of the fallen.
“Soldiers coming off 16 hour shifts will put on their cleanest uniform and come,” he said. “We’ve had movie or music stars come here and they don’t get as big a turnout as one soldier going home in a coffin.”
An Army chaplain was speaking now. The wind blew across the tarmac and I couldn’t make out the sermon, although I caught the words "going home" and "sacrifice." Then he recited "The Lord is my Shepherd."
The early afternoon sun beat down as the MRAP that had been parked off to the side fired up its engine and slowly drove over. It was then I could see the U.S. flag-draped casket sticking out the back, turning the giant armored vehicle into a hearse.
Eight soldiers lifted their fallen comrade off the vehicle, another soldier in the front and rear to begin the solemn march to the giant plane’s ramp.
Bagpipes played "Amazing Grace" as they made their way into the cavernous belly of the aircraft, the coffin its only cargo. As the ramp lifted, every soldier was saluting.
As the last of the plane’s giant doors clanked shut, "Taps" rang out.
The salutes lowered, commands were shouted, and several hundred soldiers marched to the edge of the tarmac, were dismissed. They slowly made their way back to their jobs, or their bunks.
As the massive planes engines began to roar, our own C-130 began to taxi over, and we all began to gather our bags in silence.