Wednesday, July 13, 2005

SEAL Memorial at the Punchbowl

SEAL's Crosses

I had never been to a SEAL memorial before. Of course I have had many friends die in training and combat, but I was never able to attend any of their services. So when 11 Frogmen died at 8,000 feet in the Hindu Kush, I felt compelled to attend one of the memorial services. The first one that I heard about was for the fallen members of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team ONE at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in an extinct volcano crater above the city of Honolulu, Oahu.

I made the travel plans somewhat impulsively, not really thinking the trip through. After purchasing the non-refundable plane tickets, it hit me that I was going to a memorial for 5 SDV guys that I had never met who were stationed at a Team that was a community within a community, separated from the West Coast and East Coast Teams geographically and culturally. I figured I would know a couple of guys, but would they remember me? After all, it has been 5 long years since I wore a Trident every day, and I wasn’t sure how or if I would fit in with a bunch of salty combat veterans. Would they look at me and ask, “So you flew out here from LA, and you didn’t even know any of these guys?”

On Monday morning I arrived early so that I could take some pictures of the venue and get a sense of what was to come. The Punchbowl is a truly impressive and spectacular sight. I had been there once before on a trip to Hawaii with my friend and his family when I was a teenager. The deep blue sky contrasted sharply with the white marble of the monuments and the lush green grass marked by thousands of gravestones of fallen US servicemen. The memorial service was set to take place at the foot of a large white marble staircase that is guarded by imposing marble blocks bearing the names of 56,000 American war dead. At the summit of the staircase is a giant marble statue of an angel with arms beckoning perched upon the bow of a naval vessel.

As I approached the dais I noticed that the men of SDVT 1 had set up displays to commemorate their fallen brothers, displays that flooded me with emotion upon seeing them. On the left side of the stage were 11 pairs of UDT Duck Feet swim fins tips down, ankle straps crossed, sitting beneath a desert painted M-4 rifle with its muzzle downward topped by a desert cammie helmet. A SEAL's Cross. Five of these had a Hawaiian lei placed around the rifle to signify the five sailors from Hawaii that had perished. On a table behind the rifles were shadow boxes for each man containing their full compliment of military awards, rank insignia, and a tri folded American flag. Above each shadow box was a large photo of each man. On another table just to the side was another display consisting of five sets of UDT Duck Feet draped with a UDT life jacket and topped with an old style oval shaped SCUBA facemask that had the name and BUD/S class number of each man engraved on the glass. Leaning on each was a Navy K-bar knife that had each man’s name and BUD/S class engraved upon it as well.

Soon buses began to arrive filled with the men and families of SDVT 1, and hundreds of SEALs began to form a line in order to view the displays that I had just seen. I scanned the crowd, and saw a few familiar faces, but no one with whom I had been especially close. The left side of the seating area was reserved for members of SDVT 1 and their families, so I sat on the right side with civilians, other military servicemembers, veterans from the Fleet Reserve Association, and non-SEAL Navy personnel.

The memorial was very professionally conducted, and a SEAL who had been close to each fallen man wrote and delivered a eulogy for his friend. Some of the men were able to deliver the eulogy with relatively little emotion, and some of them were clearly stricken with the task. One of the members of the Platoon from which these men had been assigned accompanied the remains back to the US and spoke on behalf of his platoon which continues to operate in Afghanistan. He flew back the next day and I learned later that he just wanted to get back to his platoon and finish the deployment even though he had permission to stay. Three families of the fallen were in attendance and were presented with posthumous Bronze Stars with “V”, Purple Hearts, and Combat Action ribbons. The 25th Infantry Division stationed at Schoefield Barracks on the North Shore provided a flight of helicopters which performed the “missing man” formation near the end of the ceremony. This was followed by six bagpipes piping “Amazing Grace” which was all that I could handle as I began to sob and cry. I wasn’t the only one though, not by a long shot. Then came the buglers playing “Echo Taps” as the assembly quietly cried.

I felt better having had the opportunity to express those emotions with others of like mind, and yet I still felt a sense of distance from my comrades across the aisle somehow. And then it all changed. One of the men from SDVT 1 called out,

“Miiiiiiiiiike Murphyyyyyyyyyy!!!!” I knew exactly what to do. So did every SEAL within the sound of his booming voice. In perfect unison with precise inflection and emphasis we all replied, “HOOYAH, Mike Murphy!”

“Daaaaaan Heeeeealyyyyy!!!” “HOOYAH, Dan Healy!”

“Maaaaatt Axelsooooooonnnnn!!!” “HOOYAH, Matt Axelson!”

“Shaaaaane Pattoooooooonnnn!!!” “HOOYAH, Shane Patton!”

“Jaaaaames Suuuuuuuuhhhh!!!” “HOOYAH, James Suh!”

The circle was complete. When we were in BUD/S, we had to greet our instructors whenever they came nearby. There were always a couple of guys stationed around the class to provide early warning for approaching instructors. We would greet them in rank order by repeating the lookout’s call, “Instructor Valderaaaaaammmaaaaa!!!” We replied, “HOOYAH, Instructor Valderama!” It is a tradition that goes back for decades in SEAL training. At the beginning of our SEAL career, each of us gave respect and welcomed our instructors whose task it was to hone us into warriors. At the end of these men’s distinguished SEAL careers, their brothers offered their final respects and welcomed them into the pantheon of fallen heroes.

I was the lone man in my seating area that cried out in return. And in that moment I wasn’t across the aisle anymore and I wasn’t alone, I was in the midst of my brothers again.