I think it’s healthy to cry, Lord knows I’ve shed a few tears overtime. Though most of the time as men we see it coming, then there are times when something triggers it and we don’t see it coming. If there is one song that will always make my eyes water, it’s TAPS, especially since I’ve attended many military funeral services over my lifetime and as a former active-duty Staff Sgt. in the U.S. Army, it drives home.
While I’ve been out of the military service for some time, memories of some of those days came back when an old friend, former barracks roommate and military buddy, James Campos linked up with me online.
I thought about the days we served together during the drug war (Operation Support Justice) while on active-duty for the U.S. Army in the early 1990’s. James was there before I arrived. In fact he had gone through the whole Noriega conflict. I had arrived afterwards from Germany, via Desert Storm.
During my 26-month tour in Panama, away from family and friends, many interesting things happened, from the guerilla warfare of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in Peru, to the drug era of Pablo Emilio Escobar (El Patrón). James, others and I worked with some pretty high-level people from all branches of the military plus many Federal agencies. We even had our own underground tunnel at the entry of the Panama Canal there at Quarry Heights. There were fun times and just crazy times, always living out of a suitcase traveling in our own 737 private jet we called the “guppy” because it looked like a pregnant fish.
Twenty-six months went by fast and I don’t regret it. We spent many holidays away from home, including Christmas, there was no time for vacation, but we did what we were sworn to do, our duties. I’m sure James would say the same thing.
We worked personally and directly for the Commander in Chief (CINC), United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Gen. George A. Joulwan. I shared an office with the aid-de-camp, Marine Maj. Dave Garza. Our office door was directly across the office of the “boss,” as we often called the 4-star general.
While sometimes it was “cool” what we did, sometimes it was dangerous and we’d always make fun of the extra $150 the Army gave us for danger pay any month we entered countries like Columbia, El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala and some of the other 17 countries of our “theatre of operations.” There are stories we can tell and others we can’t to this day, but we survived as soldiers. However, one soldier I never met but will never forget was U.S. Army Cpl Zak Hernandez, he did not survive his tour in Panama.
As stated in the Los Angeles Times last November, “In June 1992, on the eve of a visit by President George H.W. Bush, U.S. Army Cpl. Zak Hernandez was shot to death by a group of assailants near the Panama Canal. One of the killers, according to the U.S. government, was the man recently elected president of this country’s National Assembly.” (more of the story here, opens new window)
Corporal Hernandez was killed June 10, less than 24-hours before the President was to arrive. Our “boss” was flying in on Air Force One with the President and we’d been preparing for the President’s visit. Security was already tight and it became even tighter that day. I can’t even tell you how many times the Secret Service changed our routes of travel, as I was fortunate enough to meet the President and travel in the motorcade.
The President arrived and left on the 11th, though his visit was cut short after gunshots and tear gas were fired during the downtown portion of his visit. I still have a video we made at the barracks off that evening’s newscasts from CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS as they are aired one at a time on the only one American television channel, the military SCN, Southern Command Network, we had at the time.
I remember developing some of the photographs of the President’s visit at the Photo Lab in Ft. Clayton, were I also saw and helped with the images of Cpl. Hernandez’ death and how it happened, I will never forget those images. But when I hear TAPS, I think more of the day when we flew by helicopter over to Ft. Sherman on the “Atlantic side” to the base theater for Cpl. Hernandez’ memorial service.
The tradition of the memorial service is to recognize the fallen, in this case Cpl. Hernandez. The theater was filled with his comrades, his fellow soldiers in arms from his unit and surrounding units. Cpl. Hernandez’ boots were on the stage floor, in the center, next to his helmet (Kevlar) placed above with it’s personalized headband, his identification tags (dog tags) with his rifle. In the U.S. Army, your rifle (in the Army it’s called a weapon), is your inseparable companion, you and your buddy’s life depends on it during combat.
The memorial service starts first with the commander, Sgt. Maj., 1st. Sgt. and others who do a eulogy, also know as the recognition of the fallen soldier. Then comes the most tear jerking parts, the roll-call. This was my first roll-call and while honorably I’d attend one for any fallen military veteran, I hope I’ll never have to do it again. The concept of the roll call is so fellow soldiers can accept their comrade’s death and to begin the grieving process. When the roll call of the unit starts, in alphabetical order, each name is called and each soldier proudly and respectfully acknowledges their presence. Then when the name of the fallen comrade comes up, the name is called three times.
“Cpl. Hernandez, Cpl. Hernandez, Cpl. Hernandez,” no answer, so silent you could hear the heartbeats of every solider in that theater. My memory is not that good after 16 years, but I believe it was either his squad leader or 1st. Sgt. that stated, “Cpl. Hernandez is no longer with us Sergeant Major (or 1st. Sgt.).” The the statement is repeated, but by an officer directly in charge. I believe it was his platoon leader, usually a 1st lieutenant or his company commander, a captain.
The theater fell silent with pause. Then TAPS began to play.
But this was the first time I had heard it played in what sounded like stereo, by two buglers, one on each side at the back of the theater (hear it here for yourself above, you should see an mp3 player). Not a solider had dry eyes, not even the General’s or Sgt. Major’s eyes. Not I, not anyone. While eyes watered and tears fall and a few sobbed, it sank in to all, we lost a fellow comrade. Not just any comrade, a patriot who died for his country. A patriot who took the military oath, “I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
That day Cpl. Hernandez met his God. God help him, his family and friends. Again, while I didn’t personally know him, I’ll never forget his memorial service.
I bring you this story, as it’s that time of year where kids will be out of school tomorrow for at least two weeks. Families will gather and eventually gifts will open as a token of love and friendship for one another. Unfortunately many service members, civilians and members of many Federal agencies will not be with their families and friends because they are either on duty or have given the ultimate sacrifice. Some of those have left spouses and children behind, let’s not forget them. Please keep them in your prayers. God Bless, rg sends!