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?
I went around the corner to the pictures of the command staffs for the Brigade and subordinate battalions. These were full face shots of officers and senior enlisted – smiling, confident, in charge…alive. I don’t know and I didn’t ask any soldiers. Real or imagined, the faces on the Wall haunted me with sad eyes that spoke of loss and regret, young lives cut short; dreams, joys and plans gone to dust. The next blow came from the pictures of the women soldiers – young, pretty, sweet girls barely into their twenties – staring out at me with that same resignation. I knew women were being killed in Afghanistan, but seeing their faces hit like a punch in the gut. Was I being old fashioned? Not politically correct? Or was this a hard wired response, inherited from a time when the human race was on the cusp of extinction and child bearers were ever so precious? I don’t know, but as I looked at these women heroes I thought of my youngest daughter, the same age but in college at home, and shuddered.
Several weeks later, I was back at Brigade Headquarters and there were a few more pictures on the wall. Then it got worse. In the summer of 2010 Task Force Mountain Warrior finished their one year tour and was replaced by a new Brigade – Task Force Bastogne. When Mountain Warrior left, they took down all the pictures from the Wall of Heroes and left it bare. Bastogne started filling it up again. They were the same pictures – the same young, uneasy soldiers telling me of their aborted lives. I started dreading my trips to Brigade Headquarters, fearing the number of new pictures that would be on the wall. Sometimes there were none, sometimes as many as four or five, but I always stopped to look and ponder. I felt I owed it to them. You can get used to a lot of uncomfortable things in Afghanistan, but seeing those pictures of dead American soldiers is not one of them.
My pauses at the Wall of Heroes were never routine, always filled with sadness, respect and regret. This changed in the summer of 2011 when Task Force Bastogne was replaced by Task Force Bronco. This new Brigade did it differently. Instead of mounting a posed photo of each hero, they put up a big flat screen TV that ran slide shows. Each show was a series of pictures meant, I guess, to portray the soldier as a person. There were photos of him or her at work and play; goofing off with friends, posing proudly in their battle-rattle, laughing, joking, enjoying good times. The smiles were real, the frivolity genuine, the promise of life and hope for the future palpable. I could not bear to watch.
From then on I averted my eyes when I passed the Wall of Heroes. I’m sorry for that. Most of those on the Wall were killed while doing the most dangerous thing you can do in Afghanistan – traveling on dirt roads. They weren’t bad ass commandos assaulting machine gun positions, but soldiers of every specialty doing their jobs – jobs that had them out and about where an IED could blow up under them. What separated them from their surviving friends was the fact of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had absolutely no problem with this qualification for hero status. Every soldier faced the same risks as the heroes. This meant to me that, lucky or unlucky, they were all heroes. God bless all these men and women who risk their lives for us.