Treat retreat ceremony with respect

Col. Kevin Ross
86th Contingency Response Group commander

Last Thursday, five Airmen and I stood not far from the 86th Airlift Wing headquarters building paying our respects while the 86th ACOMG and the U.S. Air Forces in Europe band led an awesome retreat ceremony. While we saluted our flag during the national anthem, it broke my heart to watch vehicle after vehicle – including government ones – do U-turns at the road guard and execute their own version of a retreat. Then it made my blood boil.
It reminded me of a recent letter to the editor in a Stateside base paper. The letter was brought to my attention by a retired mentor of mine, and we laughed at the memory of my own crusade many years ago to bring the afternoon retreat ceremony to the attention of more people on base (by standing alone in the middle of a traffic circle saluting the flag).

I asked the author, Maj. Michael A. Stolt from Sheppard AFB, if I could share his letter with the KMC. It may have happened more than a year ago and 5,000 miles away, but the message rings as true right here and right now as it ever has.

There’s a retreat ceremony on the last duty day of every month in front of Bldg. 2201 on Ramstein, and every day on bases and posts all across the KMC.  If you can’t find the time to join those outside paying their respects, please don’t dishonor the memory of those who’ve given their lives serving our nation.

Thanks to Mike “Tex” Stolt for taking the time to remind us all.

It was a hot Tuesday afternoon. I was leaving Building 402 after updating my base vehicle sticker. As I walked toward the double-glass doors leading to the parking lot, I encountered a small group of people standing just inside the door – two Airmen, a civilian employee, and one captain. As I reached for the door, the captain said, “You don’t want to go out there right now.” 

I looked out and saw traffic stopped and several people frozen in the hot July sun, gazing westward, some saluting, some standing at attention, their hands laid on their chests. 
No, I don’t really want to go out there right now. I looked at my watch – 4:30 p.m. 

I stood with the group that now numbered five. No one spoke. One Airman made a call on her cell, the other shifted his gaze back and forth between his shoes and the wall. The captain sifted through a folder of papers. The civilian and I watched through the glass doors as a technical sergeant stood at attention, saluting, and a sweat ring growing on his back. It seemed to go on forever.

The base loudspeakers squeaked out the last recorded notes of the national anthem. The cars rolled forward, and the technical sergeant lowered his salute. The civilian pushed our door open and walked out. The rest of us followed. When the heat hit me I felt fortunate that my timing had kept me inside during the long ceremony.

I thought about that day for weeks. Images of the episode flashed through my mind as if I’d witnessed a crime – the plate-sized sweat ring, the glow of the cell phone on the Airman’s cheek, the civilian’s hand resting on the door handle, the glare of the sun, the heat. 

I recently read an article about the War on Terrorism and learned that we average 2.35 American dead and 10 wounded every day in the AOR. That day leapt back into my thoughts. A few hours of research helped me identify the exact date – July 14, 2005. 

On July 14, 2005, 23-year-old Cpl. Chris Winchester and 22-year-old Cpl. Cliff Mounce were killed when their vehicle was targeted by an IED in Iraq.  
On that day, 21-year-old Pfc. Tim Hines, Jr. died when an IED hit his Humvee.  
On that day, 34-year-old Staff Sgt. Tricia Jameson was killed by a secondary IED while she was treating a victim of the primary IED.  She, Chris Winchester, and Cliff Mounce all died in Trebil.  We can assume she was treating Chris, Cliff, or another in their group.  She volunteered to go to Iraq and had been in country three weeks.
On that day, four American Soldiers died in Iraq and numerous others were wounded. 

On that day, four families were plunged into mourning.  
On that day, I flew one sortie, sifted through e-mail, updated my base vehicle sticker, and hid from the heat behind a glass door.
Why does it matter that I avoided, on a technicality, participating in retreat? Some may think it’s silly symbolism, that it’s not real. An aircraft is real. A computer, a vehicle sticker – they’re real. 

I believe that anything that you allow to move you, or that inspires those around you to search their hearts, is as real as the bomb that tore Chris Winchester’s body apart last summer. Anything that forces an entire base to stop and listen to their thoughts for a while is real. Anything that causes you to pause and acknowledge that American Soldiers may be under fire, as you listen to the national anthem, is real. 

As we five stood inside that doorway, the Soldiers killed and wounded that day may have been bleeding, screaming and dying in the sand.  
If my timing is ever again as perfect as it was that day, I’ll be prepared. I’ll be ready with, “Yes, I do want to go out there right now.” You may not come with me, but I’ll bet you think about it for weeks.
If I’d stepped outside to pay respect to the flag and to the four Soldiers that died that day, how long would it have taken?
 One minute and twenty-eight seconds.