Friday, April 20, 2007

Repatriation Procession

5 Apr 07
On our way to dinner last night we happened on the repatriation procession for the two UK soldiers killed here recently. UK military police (MP) were standing in the intersection at parade rest while stopping traffic. We got out of our vehicle and stood at parade rest with them and several other vehicles followed us. As the vehicles carrying the coffins approached the MPs came to attention and again we followed suit.

From the corner of my eye I saw a runner jogging down the road toward the procession. As he closed on the procession one of the MPs shouted at the top of his lungs in a commanding, determined, and almost angry Scottish voice, “STOP! STOP RIGHT NOW! PAY RESPECT!” The runner sheepishly stopped and the MP returned to attention. A second later the MP and his counterpart saluted the passing vehicles. We also saluted. It was a humbling sight and at the aircraft 200 soldiers awaited the caskets to transport them onto the waiting aircraft—100 soldiers from each of the fallen men’s regiments.

The whole scene reminded me of my assignment at Dover AFB, DE. The DOD Mortuary is at Dover and in 2004 and 2005 we received our fallen comrades on an almost daily basis at all hours of the day and night. Operations would stop at the end of the flightline where the aircraft would park. The honor guard from the fallen service member’s branch of service would board the aircraft and transfer the casket to an awaiting hearse. One particularly cold and windy winter night a C-5 returned with 37 Marines killed in a helicopter crash. The dignified transfer ceremony of moving caskets from the aircraft to hearses lasted over 4 hours in the bitter cold as the Marine Honor Guard from Washington DC marched back and forth transporting one casket at a time to ensure all were afforded individual respect.

Dover was just minutes away from Washington DC in flying time and as such the Presidential Squadron would use the air space for training to fly approaches, patterns, etc. to maintain their currencies. It was close to DC but out of the public’s eye where they could train. Additionally, it was often the first secure refueling stop for dignitaries visiting the U.S. so we routinely had foreign heads of state pass through the base.

The first time I saw the Presidential 747 flying in the pattern was exciting. I had been home for lunch and returned via the flight line road for a closer look. As I approached the VIP tarmac I noticed a huge entourage dressed in blues and included an honor guard team. I was excited thinking Air Force One would be landing at Dover. Just then the honor guard marched out to an aircraft that was obviously not Air Force One so I waited to see who they were escorting (if not the President then surely some other dignitary). They emerged from the aircraft with a flag draped casket. It was the first dignified transfer ceremony I had seen and I was in awe as it dawned on me that every fallen service member repatriated at Dover will receive a reception fit for the President of the United States!

The British lost four soldiers again this morning at 2 a.m. to an explosively formed projectile (EFP) off base. The EFP—a military grade explosive device—was placed in the road and exploded up into a Warrior fighting vehicle as it drove over the device. A second device was placed in the most logical defensive rally point and detonated as the Brits tried to muster their force. Fortunately there were no casualties from the second blast but it demonstrates what many consider the prevailing philosophy regarding insurgents—build a better mouse trap and they’ll build a better mouse. A third device was encountered by the RAF Regiment not far from the base. They saw the device and sounded the “attack” alarm at the base followed a few seconds later by a really loud explosion. Fortunately no casualties in the last attack. Anticipate another repatriation ceremony in a couple of days.

On a lighter but related note; all the guys have these police grade Surefire flashlights that cast an exceptionally bright beam for over 100 yards. They are the brightest compact flashlights on the market and the guys wear them on their body armor. The attack alarm sounded for one of the explosive devices this a.m. at 0300. One of our guys, TSgt Curtis, rolled out of bed onto his knees and started throwing his armor on. With the gear on he laid down at exactly the same time the device exploded. When he hit the floor, his armor pressed the button on his Surefire light which flashed directly into his eyes. Curtis heard the boom and saw the bright flash simultaneously. Still 1/2 asleep, he thought the round must have gone off in his room but he didn't feel anything so figured he must be dead. A few seconds later and a little more awake he realized it still stunk like Iraq and he didn't feel any pain so maybe he wasn't dead or even injured. He collected his senses then realized where the light in his face was coming from and turned the Surefire off. We cracked up this a.m. as he recounted the "attack" in his room.

We have a bunch of ammo that previous team members have left behind for us. Additionally, we have a box of rounds for the Iraqi AK-47s. Three of us went to the range today to see if we could coordinate getting on the range to fire our M-16s, M-9s, and the AKs. The Czechs were there doing weapons familiarization with the RAF Regiment (more on the RAF Regiment some other time). I recognized their commander from prayers each day so asked him who we should coordinate with to use the range.

He gave us a phone number then said, “Would you like to come fire with us?” (Did he just ask Americans if we wanted to shoot heavy machine guns?! Wait, let me check my Greenpeace card...heck yeah we wanted to shoot!) We shot the Czech made UK‑59, the Czech version of the AK-47, and the Russian Dragunov sniper rifle. The Dragunov has an optimum range of 800 meters and is effective up to 2.2 km. The weapon packed a healthy kick. They were exceptionally generous and kept offering more and more ammo for us to fire. Not expecting to shoot, we only had our M-9 (9mm) pistols with us. We pooled our ammo and came up with seven 15-round clips for them to fire. In turn they insisted we fire their 9mm which was a great pistol. A cool way to spend the afternoon!

Rockets again tonight.


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