The following essay is part of a larger works in progress. Lisbeth Prifogle served in Iraq in 2008 and wanted to share this piece in honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Please join her on Memorial Day for a national moment of silence at 12:01PM for the 6,442 Americans that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. Let us not forget.
Al Asad Memorial Chapel, Iraq
“Captain White,” a voice echoes through the quiet chapel.
“Present,” a voice echoes back.
“Major Thompson,” the first voice bellows.
“Present,” another voice adds to the still air.
“Lieutenant Colonel Maddox,” the Sergeant Major’s voice calls out.
“Present,” calls a female voice.
“Lieutenant Colonel Walls.”
“Lieutenant Colonel Walls,” the voice echoes through the Al Asad Memorial Chapel.
Silence echoes back louder than any of the voices.
“Lieutenant Colonel Walls,” the deep voice of the Sergeant Major announces the name with a tone of annoyance in each syllable, like the voice of a schoolteacher calling for a child skipping class.
“Lieutenant Colonel Walls.” There is a sudden change in the voice as it pronounces the name for the final time from the back of the sanctuary. I can hear tears in the Sergeant Major’s voice as he finishes roll call.
One last moment of silence sounds off and I wonder how we’ve all managed to hold our breath this long. A solo bugle player belts out the beginning notes of Taps and I finally exhale. As the notes fill the room, I stare at a fallen Marine’s picture, a pair of boots, an M16 propped up with the muzzle pointed to the ground with a Kevlar helmet resting on the buttstock and a flak jacket wrapped around it. Subdued field rank distinguishes the rank of the body that once filled the armor and held that rifle. The scene is something out of a movie, only it’s real. This is all real. I realize I am holding my breath again and breathe out. I am here. I am in Iraq mourning, celebrating, and memorializing a stranger’s life because we wear, no wore, the same uniform.
I look down and remember that I brought my camera. It’s a large, digital SLR that entertains me during the long days. I try to hide it under my desert camouflage, 8-point cover, but I can’t. I am sitting alone, but I hope nobody in the pews behind me notice that I brought it. I like to pretend I am a journalist, not a Marine. I like to pretend that I am here to document life in the desert, not to live it. I brought it to take pictures of the fallen Marine’s comrades mourning because I don’t know how to mourn his death. I am lucky enough not to know anyone who has been killed in this war, and now I am staring at a picture of a stranger trying to hide my bulky camera. I brought it so I could remember being here. I brought it to show people I was part of life here, even if I refuse to acknowledge it now. I pull it closer to the pistol in my thigh holster and try to hide it. I am overcome with embarrassment for my selfish actions.
I did not know this man. This Marine. This father, son, husband, friend. I never saw his face before this memorial. Now I am here, he is gone, and I brought a fucking camera. I thought I was coming to pay my respects to a fellow Marine, but now I realize I came in order to feel something and capture it on film.
He was killed by a roadside bomb during a patrol, while I was having a sugar free, vanilla latte at the Coffee Bean at Al Asad Air Base. He died at war, while I sat in my office pretending to play war. Until now, this was all a simulated training exercise to me. In my mind, the rounds I carry are just blanks and the rocket attack drills are standard operating procedure. Now this man is dead, I’m alive, and pictures can’t even begin to capture how real this is.
“Being a Marine, a leader, wasn’t just a job – it was a way of life,” a black, female colonel tells us. I have seen her in the chow hall and around base. I notice all the other female officers on base because we are a minority, but I have never talked to this woman. Apparently, she knew this man well. I listen as she says goodbye to her friend.
“He is survived by his wife and four children,” the chaplain announces to the quiet room.
The memorial ends with a photo slide of this man with his children, his wife, and his Marines. I fight the urge to cry, but don’t allow myself that release of emotions. I did not know him; therefore, I do not get to cry. That privilege is reserved for those who knew him. I wonder if strangers would cry at a memorial if I were killed.
The slideshow ends with a photo of him in combat gear half smiling, half concerned. The Mona Lisa of combat – are we excited or miserable? Happy to be here, or scared shitless? I think about his family and the funeral they are attending on the other side of the world. I think of his young children and how they will never know their father. I think of a woman who just lost the man she loves to war. In this moment, life doesn’t seem fair. I look down and notice my camera again. I feel even more ashamed of myself than before. I also notice a female Marine snapping photos with a large, professional camera. I recognize her as one of the public affairs Marines and realize I will probably be able to download photos of the memorial from the Internet in the next day or two.
I feel ashamed because I came to the memorial for the wrong reasons. I came because I wanted to feel something – pain, sorrow, sympathy – anything but divine apathy for the surreal world I am living in. I wanted to document the memorial so that someday, I could look through the photos and try to remember feeling something while I was here. Instead I feel embarrassed and angry for feeling this way.
When I came to Iraq I believed in things – the US, the Marine Corps, the war. Now all I believe is that one day I’m going to wake up and this nightmare will finally be over. I thought witnessing this man’s memorial would make me feel more patriotic, more of a Marine, more connected to the war. Now I feel tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. I try to stop it, but I can’t. All the emotions I was supposed to feel when I walked in the chapel are now surging through my body as uncontrollable as lightening. Thoughts run through my mind like a hamster running in a wheel. This man is dead. This is real. I am at war. I could die. This man is dead. This is real. I am at war. I could die. This man is dead… When I can’t stand it anymore I pick up my camera and cover and quietly walk out of the chapel in between hymns and moment of silence. As I exit, a Marine places his hand on my shoulder and nods as if to say, “It’ll all be okay. This will all be over soon.” I pause and look up to see the rank is sergeant major. This is the body of the voice that led roll call. The Sergeant Major looks at me and gives me the comfort of a hug through his eyes. It’s a familiar look, one that my dad has given me when he knows there’s nothing in the world that he can do to comfort me, not even hug away the pain. I touch his hand to recognize his gesture and then rush out to the shop’s truck.
I spend the rest of the afternoon driving aimlessly along Perimeter Road. I take a few pictures of the desolate horizon, but all I can see through the lens is the face of the fallen Marine and all I can think is, that could be me.
Continue reading about the VA benefits specific for our female vets here.