Setting Sun

“In peace, sons bury their fathers;
in war, fathers bury their sons.”

—Herodotus

The American flag flies all day everyday over Fort Knox, Kentucky. On most military installations the flag is raised every morning at reveille and lowered every evening at retreat. So it was strange to me when one night, shortly after having arrived at Fort Knox, I drove by the flag pole and saw the stars and stripes still hanging from it like a used towel tossed over a chair. I asked a friend about this—had someone forgotten to take it down? He told me that the commanding general left the flag up in solidarity with American soldiers deployed overseas. The sun never sets on the empire.

I sat in my cluttered room drinking beer and watching TV one night in March 2003. My date of discharge from the army was 31 January 2003. But I had been extended for twelve months with no guarantee I wouldn’t be extended again and was beginning to feel more and more like an indentured servant than the volunteer they said I was. I drank heavily in a depressed state of protest and was already seven beers into twelve when Chris appeared in our room and exclaimed, “Dude, turn on CNN! The war has started!” Chris paced back and forth drinking a beer and watching the unchanging picture of Baghdad on the TV screen. “Hell yeah,” he cried, “gas is gonna be cheap as fuck this summer.”

Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” blasted from someone’s room as people came out onto the balcony to share and revel in the news. Your country going to war is a strange thing when you’re a part of its fighting forces. It’s heartbreaking when you think it’s the biggest mistake your cowboy commander-in-chief can make and you’re surrounded by people acting like children on Christmas morning. People were dying, more people were going to die and we drank beer and danced and laughed, happily divorced from the reality of a hot and dangerous desert.

***

I joined the army straight out of high school in 1995 as a Military Police soldier and arrived at Fort Knox in May 2000 after beating around Germany and the Balkans for a couple of years with the 18th Military Police brigade. I met Rich one night several months later while drinking beer and playing video games in a friend’s room on a Friday night. He had a round, puffy red face with shiny blue eyes and an easy smile. His bottom lip was distended with a pinch of skoal and he wore a camouflaged hunting hat over a close cut flat-top, a NASCAR t-shirt, a large silver belt buckle, tight jeans, and cowboy boots. After we said hello, nice to meet you, he turned to his friend sitting on an unmade bed and asked him about a new fishing rod or boat engine or maybe something about a truck and I turned back to my beer and game.

Rich wasn’t Military Police. He was EOD, a technician trained to defuse bombs. He was the only unmarried soldier in his unit and came by our barracks often just to hang out.

I never felt comfortable around Rich. I didn’t dislike him. Sometimes he’d come by my room to watch TV and drink a couple of beers. Once, he gave me a ride to Subway when I was way too drunk to drive and too hungry to know better. I got the feeling he was lonely. But he was an avid outdoorsman, drove a big truck, and wore army related T-shirts whenever he wasn’t in uniform. I sat in my room sucking down cheap beer when I wasn’t at work, drove an unmarked Chevy Impala and hunted drunks and speeders when I was, and hated anything and anyone army all the time. We never became close.

One night Rich scoured the barracks looking for someone to go eat with. I was the only person in the barracks he could find and I felt annoyed when he walked into my open room. I had just gotten off a twelve hour shift, had just removed my bullet proof vest. My undershirt was soaked with reeking sweat and all I wanted to do was go into town, pick up a greasy Wendy’s cheeseburger and a case of beer, go back to my room, check out in front of the TV alone, and finally pass out before starting another day.

“Hey man, you want to get something to eat?”

“Um, I’m not really hungry,” I lied.

“Come on man. My treat. I got this coupon for a steak place the other day. Come on, put some shoes on and let’s go.”

So I went. The restaurant was dark with candles dancing light over the tables and melodic music floating softly from the ceiling and I felt out of place wearing shorts, T-shirt, and flip-flops. I didn’t want to be there and would answer his questions with one or two words before looking off distractedly. I wanted to be eating a lukewarm burger and drinking cold beer in my dirty, well-lighted place.

When we came back on post, Rich threw a bumper sticker that read “I love bombs” on his dashboard. It was shortly after 9/11 and he hoped to rile up the guards at the gate. But no one said anything to him about this sticker and he seemed disappointed as we drove away. We arrived back at my barracks. He asked about getting some beers and hanging out. I told him that I was tired, had to work early the next morning, really didn’t feel like drinking. I thanked him for dinner and went up to my room.

I saw Rich for the last time in August of 2003 at the post gas station. I had finally gotten orders releasing me from the army—nine months late—and would be a student in Iowa in a few weeks. No more orders that had to be followed, no more sixteen hour days, no more five am formations. And I was happy.

He was going to Iraq to do what he loved—going out and blowing shit up so others could pass safely. We talked for a while knowing it would be the last time we would see each other. I was leaving. He was going to Iraq and then somewhere else and then somewhere else after that. He had to get going and it was shift-change and I had to get going, too. I don’t remember what I said to him. What do you say to someone headed off to a war? A war, even then, growing worse with each passing day? I probably said something stupid like “be safe,” or “keep your head down.” He laughed, said he would, wished me luck with everything and drove away.

***

SSG Richard Ramey was killed in Iraq on February 16, 2004, while attempting to defuse an improvised explosive device on the side of a road. He was 27 years old. Seven guns fired into the air three times as his father buried him in the cold Ohio ground and his mother clutched the perfectly folded flag.


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