By Jon Harris:
In July 2012, I was a contract dog handler at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Sharana, Afghanistan. I handled a narcotic detection canine. The Taliban is principally funded by the smuggling and sale of narcotics. Afghanistan was (and still is) the largest producer of opium in the world, so my work to stop the narcotics directly affected the coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan. I also trained and supervised the explosive detection dog teams. We all took our jobs very seriously—one mistake would most likely be your last. When asked how I felt about handling an explosive detection canine, which I did on several contracts, I always said that any IED or bomb my dog and I found was one less that my son—a young officer in the Army—might find by accident. In my mind, I was not only doing the job, I was protecting my family and maybe yours. I had seen too many victims of IEDs and wanted to do my best to stop any more soldiers from becoming victims of this insidious weapon. The dog teams were the best weapon against the IEDs. That is why so many dog teams and their handlers were targeted. We did a lot of damage to the enemy’s effort.
On this particular day, the weather was hot and dry. Random dust storms rolled through like mini tornadoes but without the damage. At night, the wind normally kicked up, and by morning, anything left unsealed was full of talcum powder-like dust. It was a daily ritual to clean everything. You could come in from a walk and be covered with dirt. If it was a sweaty walk, the dirt turned to mud. Clothes, gear, you, and the dog were all cleaned daily. I purchased a vacuum cleaner from one of the local workers on the FOB. The rest of the handlers, to keep up with cleaning, constantly borrowed that item. My dog Jack liked being vacuumed. It helped cut down on the hair in the room and kept him clean.
During the winter, things were relatively quiet around FOB Sharana. We would get the occasional report of a contact, but for the most part, the bad guys concentrated on staying warm. Ankle-deep snow and sandals do not mix well, I guess. But suddenly, that time of calm had passed. I saw the medevac Blackhawks come swooping in to the Forward Surgical Team (FST) here. Sometimes they brought in Afghan soldiers, sometimes ours; sometimes they even brought the dogs. Yes, our canine partners rate medical care just like any other soldier if needed. Normally after they landed, there was a delay and then they would fly back to their area. Sometimes they were on the ground only moments and then these big black angels of mercy would jump back into the air and head off, nose down, rotors straining to get where they had to be without delay. You could almost hear the engines yelling, “Just hold on, I’m coming.”
The ceremonies for fallen soldiers always impacted me. These were tough on everyone, but unfortunately, they are a fact of life in a war zone. Not all days are good ones. Not all days end without contact, and not all contact ends well.
I remember when I was still in the Army—my wife says I never really left the little things we did. The showings of respect and tradition we did out of habit, out of training, out of caring. The day of the fallen hero ceremony, retreat came to mind. At retreat, you are supposed to stop and get out of your car and salute as the flag is lowered on post. All traffic is supposed to stop. All personnel are supposed to get out of their vehicles and render the proper respect to the lowering of the flag. I remember how upset I would get when I saw others still driving during retreat. I would purposely stop my car right in the middle of the road, blocking as many lanes as I could. It was important to me. This memory came back to me that day in Afghanistan. I was not at the fallen hero ceremony, but I was just adjacent to where it was taking place as I drove to the MP station. The ceremony was ending and it was time for the fallen to make his final trip away from FOB Sharana. This was done in a very appropriate way. In fact, I could think of no better tribute. The helipad right behind the hospital was ringed with soldiers and other personnel, all standing at attention. Two Blackhawk helicopters were on the pad running and ready to take the fallen soldier for his last flight from here.
As the ceremony ended, the first Blackhawk slowly rose and backed away from the gathering and hovered about 100 feet away, then the Blackhawk carrying its precious cargo rose as well and hovered a while. As it did, it made a slow 360-degree spin in place, symbolically letting the fallen soldier it was carrying take one last look around. The first Blackhawk hung in the air as if standing watch. As they did this, I stopped my vehicle and got out to face the hovering helicopters. As the Blackhawks departed, the soldiers at the ceremony and all over the FOB saluted. The Blackhawks gained altitude and slowly dipped their noses and departed. They both launched flares as they left in a final tribute. Although no longer in the Army, I also stood at attention and saluted. When it was over, salutes were slowly lowered in unison as if by some silent command. I followed suit.
As I started to get back in my car, some other civilian—an American—came up to me, saying that he was in a hurry and I was not supposed to block traffic and that I should not salute (because I was not a soldier). The look he got from me at that point seemed to convince him that he had said the wrong thing to the wrong person. My mood had immediately gone from sorrow and respect to disgust and anger. He stopped in mid-sentence and got back in his car. He was right about one thing—he picked the wrong person at the wrong time and the wrong place. I just stared and slowly returned to my vehicle, taking a little extra time before I unblocked his path.
As I drove away, I thought of all the traditions and little things that we did as soldiers to show respect. I remembered how I always held with disdain those who tried to get around those things or did not think they were important. All those feelings came rushing back when this person showed that he was too busy or too selfish to understand how important those things are. He did not think about the fallen soldier we were honoring. He did not think of the hero who was someone’s child. He did not think of the grieving family that hero had left behind. He only thought of himself.
Maybe I just do not understand how someone could be so unfeeling. Maybe I think these things—such as respect and tradition—are important and should be remembered. Then again, I never was very forgiving where this sort of thing was concerned. Thinking about it now as I write this still makes me angry. I am actually thankful he just got back in his car. The situation could have headed south very quickly, and he did not even know it. Had he said one more word, I would have kicked his ass. Then I would not have had to drive to the MP station; they would have given me a ride. Now that I am older and have a son in the Army, it means even more. It is more personal.
These traditions are important. They are vital and ingrained in all soldiers, young and old. Respect means something. Tradition means something, and failing to appreciate that—failing to respect those traditions—is something that cannot be tolerated. I know for me, if this happened again, I would welcome the MP’s ride after I explicitly explained the importance of honoring the fallen to someone who was in too much of a hurry to wait a moment as a hero went home.
Jon Harris is an OpsLens contributor and former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community.