By Rex Lee Applegate
The US Army Brigade headquartered at Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan put up pictures of their soldiers who had been killed in action. It was called the Wall of Heroes. As a civilian working in Afghanistan I encountered it often – an experience that both haunts and inspires me to this day. I was a Customs Expert working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) at the Torkham Gate border crossing some 45 miles from Jalalabad. My job to mentor Afghan Customs was integrated into the operations of US Army units assigned to FOB (Forward Operating Base) Torkham a few miles from the port. As my civilian bosses were similarly integrated into Brigade operations in Jalalabad, I had many occasions to visit there.
The first time I encountered the Wall of Heroes was in the spring of 2010 – some four months into my two year assignment. As I entered Brigade headquarters, a wall on the left side of the main entry corridor attracted immediate attention. It was covered with pictures of soldiers – rows of official Army 8 x 12 photographs. In each photo the soldier stood in front of a backdrop that included the US flag. At the bottom were rank, name, unit designation, and…the dates. The first dates were birthdays. Most were between the years 1985 and 1990. The dates of death ran from mid-2009 to early 2010. The first row started with the first death experienced by the Brigade during its one year deployment and pictures were added from there. There were two long rows with empty space remaining at the end of the second row. I didn’t count the number, that would have been too depressing, but it looked to be around 35 pictures. The Brigade was into its ninth month in Afghanistan.
What immediately struck me about this display were the faces. The young soldiers staring out were ill at ease, stiff, uncomfortable – maybe even sad. The few smiles were awkward, embarrassed, unconvincing. None of them displayed the brash bravado of youth. Even the few older soldiers, senior Sergeants and officers, looked unhappy. It was as if the photographer had said something like, “This is the picture that will be displayed if you are killed. Smile!” Was this all in my imagination? Was I projecting?