02 August 2010

Scenes from a Send-Off Ceremony

The vibe at a unit send-off ceremony is like a funeral, a graduation, and a wedding all rolled into one, except that there isn't as much beer involved.

Don't believe me? Consider this: There are bagpipes, there is marching, and the National Anthem is played. From where I come from, that's halfway to a party right there.

Here's how it went down for me:

First, there was freakish line in the sky immediately preceding our brigade headquarters' official send-off ceremony last Friday. It seriously went from black to blacker in 60 seconds flat, and dumped Biblical amounts of water on Boone, Iowa: Flash-flood, dogs-and-cats, use-your-seat-as-a-floatation-device while you hydroplane-at-highway-speeds weather.

I'd like to report that it got sunnier after that, but it would be more accurate to say that the rain stopped. It was misty and cloudy and almost muggy. Perfect weather to match my overall mood.

The ceremony took place indoors, thank goodness. A volunteer group of Iowa bagpipers marched the Headquarters Company troops into the auditorium. Greetings were offered. The National Anthem was played. Salutes were rendered. Words were said, and prayers offered. Most of all, past-tense was used.

I've become increasingly convinced that that send-offs aren't as much for the people who are being sent-off, as they are for the people doing the sending. It's important for mom and dad, spouse and kids, friends and family to mark the time and place of their loved one's departure.

The ceremony was over in about 30 minutes, even with the 7-minute standing ovation the troops received as they marched in. The troops grabbed their rucksacks and duffel bags as they left the building, and started stuffing the gear into the bellies of the buses.

There was plenty of time to say good-bye. Almost too much.

Since I didn't have family there, I played my usual part of court jester, cracking jokes and shaking hands and chatting with anybody who seemed to want to chat. I also took some pictures for folks, so the whole family could get into frame.

Later, I realized it had felt a little like emotional triage site. You couldn't focus on people too long or deeply, because you might end up crying yourself.

There were the girlfriends and boyfriends saying good-bye with death-grip hugs and kisses. Forehead to forehead, couples tuned out world for as long as they could.

There were the geographic bachelors, the guys and gals who just reported into the unit. "Yeah, I just introduced myself to the commander," one soldier muttered to me, shaking his head. Imagine parachuting into the deployment to become the one guy on the bus who doesn't know anyone else.

One buddy of mine was getting on the bus. He'd injured his back, and the Army wanted to evaluate him medically when he gets to Camp Shelby, Miss. Another buddy of mine wasn't getting on the bus. He'd also injured his back, but the Army had told him that they wanted all medical evaluations be complete prior to travel to Camp Shelby. He'd told his parents not to come to the send-off, because he wouldn't be getting on the bus that day. They came anyway.

There were new fathers, huge with pride, cradling tiny babies.

There was a family of four in a prayer huddle, facing inward and toward each other, standing two steps from the door of the bus. It was like an island of calm in a sea of T-shirts and duffel bags.

I saw one mother struggle to keep her three kids focused on looking for Dad through the windows of the bus, while the kids struggled not to focus on the fact that Dad was leaving for a year. I thought about what the walk to the car would be like for her. Or the drive home.

The send-off ceremony is part of a mental and emotional transition from civilian to soldier. After all the standing in line, hearing the pipes, loading the bus, and saying good-byes? At some point, troops just want to get on the bus:

Let's do this thing. Let's get this deployment over, so I can come back. Let's roll.


  1. We never got to do anything like that. A quick drop off for the Individual Augmentees in the most awful weather imagined. Then driving across the state of GA, knowing he wouldn't be getting on the plane for 5 more days, and wishing we could at least have dinners.
    Anyway, God speed to all. To those going over to the warzone, and to those staying here stoking the hearth.

  2. It was good of you to play court jester and bring a few smiles. That's an important job that is often overlooked.

    Thank you for serving...

    As for the ominous clouds: As dark and foreboding as they were...all they could manage to do was to make a big display, then turn to mist in the presence of so many Red Bulls.

  3. What's a send-off? I grabbed my sea bag and hopped on a plane. When I went overseas, it was settle into the radar seat and watch and measure the blips. But that was a good thing. I couldn't have 'man upped' if there were anyone there to see me off.


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