Tuesday, September 13, 2005, Fort Benning, GA
Kelly Hill at Fort Benning is the usual home of some of the 3rd Infantry Division. It is a sprawling complex of buildings and barracks, parking lots and narrow roads usually swimming with thousands of soldiers; but now with the Division deployed to Iraq, this sprawling complex is home to a few Rear Detachment soldiers and dozens of National Guard units in training or preparing to deploy somewhere in the world. It is eerily deserted and quiet.
Just beyond the post office and adjacent to the medical clinic sits the Kelly Hill Chapel. The memorial service for Sergeant Bohling was scheduled to begin at 11:00AM, but we arrive early. The chapel is starkly cool compared to the thick, hot oppressive air so routine in the South ‑‑ brilliant sunshine peaking in through the windows at the top of the brick walls and through the open doors at the back.
At the end of the nave, sitting just in front of the altar steps atop a display box is the all too familiar warrior’s memorial: an inverted rifle, boots at the lowered edge of the bayonet, helmet (kevlar) perched on the top of the weapon’s butt, dog tags hanging from the helmet… the tradition of displaying a soldier’s helmet atop his rifle originated on the battlefield, where they marked the location of the fallen soldier. In front of this memorial is a large portrait of the handsome, smiling Sgt. Matthew Bohling dressed in the desert camouflage of the war, with sand behind the softly smiling image as far as the eye can see and for as much as the camera can capture. I notice how young he is, the sparkle in his eyes, the tousle to his hair as if he had just run his hand through the short dark brown tufts.
At first there are just a few soldiers present – all from the Division’s Rear Detachment... and Noah, handsomely dressed in his newly cleaned dress uniform, his shoes shined to glass… He’s talking softly in the front few pews with these other soldiers also smartly dressed in their Class A uniforms out of respect for and to honor their fallen comrade.
Soon, Sgt. T arrives. Sgt. T is just home from Iraq on leave to attend the birth of his second child – a boy that should have been born yesterday. He arrives dressed like the others in his dress uniform holding the hand of his very pregnant wife. Although they had greeted each other yesterday in an accidental meeting, Sgt. T and Noah clasp fists and then forearms in the way that brothers do. Later my son would say that they had talked about the time Noah and Matt were put on “AHA duty” – 24 straight hours of guarding ammo -- and how Matt had spent part of the night trying to play some song by ear on his harmonica. Sgt. T was in -- is in -- Sgt. Bohling’s platoon. He was gunning in the vehicle Matt was driving when they hit the IED. He was there with Matt when he died.
A few minutes later, my hobbled son lurches on stiff legs from his pew to warmly greet Sgt. N. who was with Noah that day in late August when the VBIED shattered much of the building they were in. Sgt. N is clearly excited to see Noah – not having heard much news on his condition before the Sgt. departed Iraq for his R&R leave and has been pleasantly surprised by Noah's presence here. The manly embrace is repeated again and Sgt. N, Noah and Mrs. N walk forward to the third pew. After the service, the Sgt. and the Mrs. will depart for their vacation delayed by the desire to attend today’s service.
Over the next few minutes, many military wives unaccompanied by their now deployed spouses enter the chapel, greet each other and take their seats. Soldiers, many with the distinctive striped patch of the 3rd ID on the shoulders of their utilities, arrive and sit closely together. Soldiers from other units around the fort also arrive and join the growing body of soldiers and civilians in the chapel. An organist has arrived and is playing a selection of patriotic songs. I am seated in the almost rear pew – feeling slightly like an interloper in this public yet oh so private service.
Promptly at 11:00AM, the senior officers of the Division not deployed, enter in a line and proceed in a perfectly unisoned march to the front of the chapel and then one by one execute perfect “about face” turns in front of their chairs and as one they are seated. One by one they take to the podium and offer remarks about and prayers for the young Matt Bohling. The Lt Col., a Captain... speak their own remarks and the remarks of the Company and platoon leaders forwarded from the battlefield -- all telling of the things my son has told me in the preceeding days: what a good soldier Matt was; how Matt loved to play his harmonica. How he spoke so lovingly and exuberantly about his home state of Alaska. How he spoke so endearingly of his family – parents, brother, sister.
A prayer is offered. A soulful performance of Amazing Grace follows by Sgt. D. Then the roll call I dread is upon us. The members of the Company are called to attention and Sgt. T., Sgt. N. and Noah stand sharply with fists unnaturally clenched stiffly at their sides as if holding on to the past, the present, the future… just these three standing among the many assembled. Loudly, Sgt F. standing ramrod straight at the head of the nave stares stone faced out across those in attendance and stridently calls each of the first three names, and each loudly responds their presence.
Then the Sgt. calls out in the quiet of the chapel, “Sgt. Bohling.” There is no response. Louder now, “Sgt. Matthew Bohling.” Again there is no response. Louder still as if this time someone will answer, slowly in a stern barked cadence with a slight pause between each word, “Sgt. Matthew Charles Bohling.” There is only silence in return until the sharp report of the first of three volleys from the rifles shriek through the air from outside the chapel, followed by the ever mournful notes of “Taps” that falter midway as if the bugle or bugler is overcome. The sounds of sniffles and shallow weeping can be heard from all corners of the nearly full chapel. And I think how hard this service must have been on all the Guys of A Co. in the sands of Iraq three days ago when Matt’s other brothers were called to honor and bid farewell to their friend so close to where he had fallen.
The service is concluded. As each pew empties, the civilians turn to the back of the chapel to exit while the soldiers turn out row by row to form an orderly single file to the front of the chapel, each to tap or touch the helmet, boots, dog tags of the fallen hero… to say a final farewell... and I am reminded of the closing words of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Rest in Peace, Matt… and know that your sacrifice is not unnoticed and that you are not -- and will not be -- forgotten.
Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.