By Norris Burkes
Posted May 28, 2017
This Memorial Day, as many Americans take to the highways, my heart navigates the “Hero’s Highway.” It’s a highway I knew in 2009 while serving as the chaplain for the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad Iraq.
This “highway” consisted of a hundred yards of concrete from the helicopter-landing pad into our hospital emergency room. We wheeled a lot of heroes down that highway, but today I remember those for whom I conducted memorial services.
We called those sacred soldier ceremonies “patriot details,” and they were usually conducted the hour after a soldier died. I officiated my first one on Jan. 10, 2009, for 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Justin Bauer.
In the few minutes after Bauer was pronounced dead from a roadside bomb, our hospital commander ordered “all hands available” to assemble in the emergency room. Thirty minutes later, I stood before a hundred staff members, all soldierly quiet, as if waiting for permission to breathe.
I closed my eyes and silently begged God to help me set aside my nervousness. Words finally choked from my very tight throat.
“Staff Sgt. Justin Bauer was one of us. We didn’t know him, but we are less without him today. I believe he knows our presence now as he is now known by God.”
As I finished the 15-minute ceremony with scripture and a prayer, my chaplain assistant, Tech. Sgt. David Pastorius from Youngstown, Ohio, barked, “Ah-ten-SHUN!” This cued the color guard to assemble around the body. They unfolded the American flag and snapped its corners tight, levitated it over Bauer and then released it until it draped the body with a red-white-and-blue silhouette.
Taps played from a CD behind the nurses’ station, salutes were rendered by armed doctors and hardened veterans as the honor guard rolled the body from the emergency room.
A few minutes later, a Special Forces medic found me outside speaking with the honor guard.
“Hey, Chaplain. One more thing,” he said. “Can we toast a fellow soldier?”
From a knapsack, he pulled a six-pack of “Near Beer,” a product as close to alcohol as we were permitted. We each took a can and simultaneously popped the lids. The bursting lids reminded me of the synchronized breaking of communion wafers during worship.
“The first sip is for Bauer,” he declared.
“Bauer!” we said.
Then the medic coaxed us to raise our cans above our head.
“We spill the beer the way Bauer spilled his blood,” he said. The moment had all the liturgical ceremony of a Sunday Mass. We tipped the cans until several ounces muddied the dirt.
Then the medic raised his can again, and said, “To you. You are my brothers.”
His words reminded me of a priest raising the wine chalice and quoting Jesus: “This is my blood which was spilled for you.”
The medic was right. None of us knew Bauer, so we Googled his name. He was a 2002 graduate of Berthoud High, just north of Denver, Colo. He was a paratrooper, third-generation military and a second-generation firefighter.
Between his two Iraq tours, he married his high school sweetheart, Kari, three months before his death.
In his civilian role as a firefighter, he resuscitated a woman after a car accident. With that kind of heroics, we weren’t surprised when the military later awarded him the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Today when people ask me why I volunteered to serve in a combat hospital, I tell them I needed to be an eyewitness to the honor, character and bravery of these soldiers. I needed to say that I traveled Hero’s Highway with them and stood on the sacred soil where they died.
Gratefully, more than 97 percent of our soldier-patients went home on a plane much like mine. The other heroes, like Justin Bauer, went home under a flag. Memorial Day is their day. Remember them always.
Column excerpted from Norris’ book “Hero’s Highway.” Write chaplain Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org.