Memorializing the Ultimate Sacrifice

Air Force Master Sgt. Tiffany Robinson kneels in front of a battlefield cross following a Memorial Day ceremony at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, May 26, 2014.  The cross was created with combat gear representing each of the five U.S. military branches to commemorate fallen service members. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Dietrich

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends – John 15:13, King James Version

Sacrifice. The ultimate, final sacrifice of one’s life for others. This is the true secret that lies at the heart of military service: it is one of the few occupations where one could theoretically, and often actually, make this sacrifice. There are several others that are similar, and not all who have served would willingly make this sacrifice, but the fact is that the potential always has been and always will be there.

When I was on Recruiting duty from ’03-’05, I was keenly aware of this sacrifice. Luckily, in my eyes, I was stationed outside a military installation, so the majority of the recruits I enlisted were aware of it as well. Recruiting outside a base keeps an honest person honest; there’s no point in telling people BS, because they would just go back and talk to their mom, or dad, or uncle, or whoever, who would set them straight.

I once had an astute young man ask me the question: what’s the worst thing about being in the Army? It wasn’t a trick question, and the answer wouldn’t have mattered, he was going to join anyway. He just wanted the information. I thought about it for a while; people yell at you. A lot. Sometimes there can be the senseless tasks that come with any bureaucracy. You cut a lot a grass and rake a lot of leaves. Then, it struck me:

The worst thing about the military are the Memorial Ceremonies.

The inherent danger of service in the military, regardless of combat or not, means that people will lose their lives. When a unit loses a service member, we honor them not with a funeral, but in a uniquely military fashion: with a ceremony. Unfortunately, putting these ceremonies together was something I became pretty good at. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, just like any other military ceremony.

There are many reasons, psychologically, that we would honor those we have lost in this way. That’s a key point: to honor the memory of the brother or sister. If the ceremony is held at a stateside base, much of the ceremony is for the benefit of the family, that they may know that those who served with their fallen loved one held them in great esteem. It’s also a form of catharsis for the members of the unit themselves, a way to  acknowledge the grief and loss in a way that may help the grieving process. My particular branch of the service, the Army, does things literally by the book, and that includes writing a book that makes sure guidelines are adhered to. In our case, it is Army Training Publication 1-05.02, Religious Support to Funerals and Memorial Ceremonies and Services. The publication describes the need for these services and ceremonies in this way:

Memorial ceremonies honor our fallen Soldiers and provide an environment for survivors to grieve. The opportunity to grieve can provide healing and renewal to the living that allows the unit to move forward with its collective mission.

For me, the most difficult part of the entire ceremony is the end, and in particular, the Last Roll Call. This event is so emotionally significant that the above manual recommends preparing any family members attending the ceremony for the Last Roll Call.

If you’ve never been in the military, let me paint a picture for you. It’s 3:30 in the morning, and you and a bunch of your battle buddies are in formation. The person on charge of the whole group is checking to make sure that everyone’s where they should be, which is right here along with everyone else. One of the easiest ways to do that? Respond when you hear me call your name. Private Smith? Here.  Sergeant Jones? Hooah. Specialist Anderson? Anderson? Hey, where the @#%$ is Anderson? Imagine Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off calling for someone who isn’t there…only the consequences are much, much greater in the Army.

The same thing happens in a Memorial Ceremony, only for vastly different reasons. At a particular point in the ceremony, the enlisted leader in charge of the unit will go to the front of group and conduct a roll call.

Private Smith?

Here, First Sergeant. 

Sergeant Jones?

Here, First Sergeant. 

Specialist Anderson?

Here first Sergeant. 

After each name is called, the service member stands at attention. After the last service member in formation is called, the name of the fallen is called three times. Rank, last name. Rank, first name, last name. Rank, first name, middle name, last name.

Sergeant Wolf.

silence. 

Sergeant Eduvigues Wolf.

silence.

Sergeant Eduvigues Guadalupe Wolf.

silence. 

It is in those silent moments, for me, that the reality crashes home. They will no longer answer the call, because they have answered the ultimate call. They are no longer physically in the formation, but they will always be in the formation.

They are no longer with us. They have demonstrated their ultimate love for their brothers and sisters by laying down their lives for us.

For every fallen brother or sister, those of us who remain behind feel their loss keenly. We know the sacrifice, we know the pain of loss, and we gladly bear that loss on behalf of a nation that may or may not understand. We don’t have to consider this only on Memorial Day, but at any time. And at all times.

And be grateful for the sacrifice of those who have given all so that we may enjoy what we have.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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