Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Salute In Memoriam

A common fear among those who have lost loved ones is that others will forget them. Upon request I offer a tribute that aired on public radio ten years ago this week of one who deserves to be remembered.

Aaron Holleyman was born in Rankin County, grew up in Clinton and had family ties to Monticello and Carthage. I knew him as Glenda Carpenter’s son. Good people, his family: the best among our Mississippi towns. 

Holleyman was 26, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when on August 30, 2004 his last-in-line military vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in Khutayiah, Iraq. He had been injured on a previous tour and did not have to return, but chose to do so despite his hearing loss, at the time of his death. 

There is always a back story—everybody’s somebody’s baby—for each of our casualties of war. And our task, as I see it, is to remember.

American flags like sentries line the iron fence leading into the Monticello cemetery. Crisp standards whip in the faint breeze beating back the Mississippi afternoon heat, unaware that they set more than the stage, they set the tempo. They define the moment.

Cars crawl into line along the gravel shoulder as friends from long ago emerge and cluster a respectable distance from the tent, giving warm hugs and fleshy handshakes, waiting for over an hour in the sun to pay respects. The family arrives in the company of Special Forces officers. The human wave undulates to allow them passage to the green turf-covered chairs in the shade.

Once the playing field in this small town was striped with white, and crowds cheered, and sweaty teams fought to the finish to see who would win. Now we know that was child’s play. Another playing field has claimed a friend’s child, and today we honor them.

Not a number anymore. 

Not a statistic on the nightly news.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Holleyman has a name. Now he has a resting place.

Special Forces:  The 82nd Airborne. Fifth Special Forces Training group. Even the uninitiated among us knows they have something we don’t: They’ve been tested and proven worthy. They serve their country. And they bury their dead.

Soldiers snap to attention. 

The triangle of blue and white is pressed into the hands of his mother, our friend and high school classmate. Collective tears fall onto the dust at the sight of them – proud, aching, faithful—all at the same time. The young fatherless child leaves her daises atop the casket. The bagpiper compresses humid air into strains of “Amazing Grace,” then seamlessly moves into “The Green Beret.” 

            “Silver wings upon their chest.
            These are men, America’s best…”

More tears and silence.

A sharp command, the only human sound before the crack of seven rifles firing as one, fails to dislodge the lump in my throat. And they fire again…and again. It’s too much, and a community cries the tears of a grateful nation, for this is our hometown hero now.

His family will not mind our tears, for they celebrate his life and his faith. They hold no grudges, harbor no malice, and offer only words of gratitude and pride for his service. 

And right beside them strides his brother, Daniel, wearing the same uniform, marching in the same brave footsteps as soldiers before.

America’s best indeed.

It’s been ten years since I tapped out these words because I couldn’t not do so. My feeble effort at verbal tribute was the only way I could process the emotionally draining military burial and compassionate response of the local folks who showed up to say goodbye to a shared son and grandson.

We’re all extended family in Mississippi. 

Aaron is one of many we lost too young. Each man and woman deserves to be remembered so that their sacrifice will not be in vain. A preoccupied, forgetful nation may pay a steep price for neglecting history and memory.

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