Sunday, September 12, 2010

SPC Christopher Akin

There is something to be said about the loss of a comrade. Regardless of how he fell, there is something that we all went through together the will eternally tie us all together. This is the story of my experiences with taking a fallen soldier home.
Christopher Akin was a fellow soldier, we served in Iraq together and although we didn’t have much contact he was still considered one of our family. A large family that went though hell together. We all suffered together and with most times a smile on our faces. We all carry the scars of our experiences with us for the rest of our lives, it is forever a part of us.
Akins military service was held on Thursday, September 2nd. I was asked to speak with other members of the command. Myself and his team leader printed pictures and framed them to be displayed. We were running around trying to get this ready, but we kept saying that we have to do it right. He has to be represented the right way, and the typical remembrance photo just wasn’t going to cut it. A fellow soldier had taken several great pictures of his platoon, and with Akin being his platoon medic there were several of him during the deployment. The pictures were great and they depicted him in a way that showed that even on a long patrol he could still have a smile on his face. I took those pictures from my friend Soto’s website and had them blown up, we framed them and placed them behind the boots, rifle and helmet that we all hate to see assembled that way. We nodded at each other in approval and began final preparations for the service.
Dress green uniform, polished medals, perfect creases. I just kept saying you can get through it. Hold it together and do it right…for him, for his guys, for his family. His family was going to see a taping of the service. I really didn’t want to break down standing up there in front of people. I started to realize that there were so many people that arrived to show their support. More and more showed until it was a full house in the chapel. The opening words were said by the Chaplin, then our command team, then two fellow soldiers that worked with him. Then it was my turn…nervous, and uneasy, I said this…

“ For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Eric Williams. I served in Iraq with Christopher in a volatile area known as Sadr City. Akin was a line medic in 2nd platoon and I was a line medic in 3rd platoon. We saw each other on a daily basis and worked alongside each other. He could always be found reading a book or listening to music or any of the thousand different thing we try to do to pass the time while deployed. He was always a mild mannered, very laid back kinda guy. Nothing really got him too worked up and he was certainly never high strung. I never saw him bent out of shape even though it would have been so easy for us to become that way. Akin always preformed above and beyond. Sometimes other soldiers don’t understand how hard line medics work, but I do. I know he went on more patrols and worked harder then anyone to make sure the men that were his responsibility never saw any harm come to them. He was supremely dedicated to his mission. Something that I know he felt very passionately about. I know this because we talked about it, we talked about how we would handle a certain situation if it ever came up. And once again he was in the books, studying, learning more so that it could be put to use if ever needed.
We were the only medics in our battalion to receive orders to come to Fort Sill, and although we were both stationed at the same place and in the same command. We rarely saw each other. Opposite schedules made it difficult to see him. I never knew about any of the internal struggles that he was dealing with. I wish that I had, maybe we could have talked. Im reminded of a quote I once heard. “War is waste and chaos, that’s what it is. it’s the most profound waste of life, time, sprit and treasure know to man. War is an obscenity and we say however that it is preferable to subjugation, and it is. The time and place and cause of war however we may characterize it is most times beyond our control and they are most certainty beyond the control of a soldier. All Soldiers suffer in war and their families suffer equally”. SPC Akin lost his war, and we are left to wonder why. We may never know. It is not our place to remember how he fell, but rather to remember how he lived. To remember the memories that we shared with him. Ive talked extensively with members of his platoon, and they are just as shocked as I am. But I am comforted by one thing. The fact that immediately after hearing the news, our brotherhood banded together to remember his life. We shared stories of conversations and adventures we have all had. I can only hope that you too will be able to remember his life and share a story. My thoughts are with his family during this difficult time. From everyone at Meddac, our family at 1-6INF and his platoon, the Hooligans, you will be missed, more than you could know. Gone but never forgotten…”

I had actually gotten through it. I did it right. The final remarks were made and we filed down and rendered our final salute. With a grasp of his hanging dog tags off of his rifle I placed our deployment patch at his boots and finally walked away. It was very hard to keep it together through all of that but I had done it. Little did I know that this would not be the end of my journey.
I had brought it to the attention of the command that I was willing to escort the body home if needed, that it would be my honor. The response I got was that I would have to pay my own way. The reason for this was that there was already an escort and there only needed to be one. We talked about it and I was just not going to be able to afford the flight. The senior NCO, who was the escort, said that he would pay for half of the flight so that I could go. I was in shock. The flight was ultimately paid for by the command so that I could go as well. Right after the service we went to a building and talked to mortuary affairs. We received our briefing about how everything was handled and all the paper work involved. Believe me there was a lot of paper work involved. This was going to be one hell of a process with a lot of moving parts. But somehow everything would work out.
We left Saturday morning at 0730. It was an hour and a half trip up to the funeral home where Akin was staying. Once we arrived, we were greeted by the staff, led into a large area where the casket already was. We had to verify the body, which we had to do several times, its part of the process. His dress uniform was draped over the body and was perfect, everything was where it should be. The casket was closed and was draped with the flag, a salute was rendered and Christopher was loaded into the back of the hearse. From that moment on we never left Akins side. We would be with him for his entire trip home. With the NCO in the front seat and me following in my truck behind we departed for the airport.
Its impossible not to notice the reaction from people as you pass by. They immediately knew what happened. Almost everyone slowed down and did not pass us. They let Christopher go first, Simi trucks flashed their hazards, and for the short time to the airport, Christopher led the way. We were escorted into a back area where cargo hangers were all in line. We unloaded the casket and took him to a waiting area while the plane was prepared for departure. While he was unloaded a salute was rendered, and as we turned around and began walking with the casket I noticed the cargo workers. Not a lot of them maybe 3 or 4, but they were all standing there as we walked into the holding area. One at a time we were led through the back areas of the terminals so that we could check in and then return back to the holding area. One at a time so that Christopher was never alone.
About an hour went by as we were waiting for the plane to arrive and be prepared. The ground crew introduced themselves and explained what was to be expected so that we were never out of the loop. We were told that all the passengers baggage would be loaded but the passengers would be held at the gate. We were taken one by one to the plane down the tarmac, we were positioned to the side of the ramp and met by several southwest workers as well as the Captain of the flight. With the utmost respect the casket was loaded onto the ramp and began to move up toward the plane, again a salute was rendered and the casket was secured in the belly of the plane. As I turned around I noticed that there were several people watching from the terminal windows, standing, no one moved. We were led up the stairs and into the plane, we were the first ones on. After everyone was on board the captain come over the PA system. He introduced himself and told the passengers the typical flight information. Then he said that he was honored to be transporting Christopher Akin home. Ill be honest, I got a little choked up.
As we landed in Kansas City, MO the pilot again came over the PA system and asked that the passengers remain seated so that we may get off the plane. We were led down the stairs again and stood next to the ramp. We rendered our salutes as the casket came down the ramp. As we stepped away you couldn’t help but notice everyone standing there watching. Workers removed their hats and stood in silence. We were escorted to another hanger where we would wait for our connecting flight. We waited for word that the next plane was on the ground. I remember calling my mother, telling her I was in Kansas City. I told her I was blown away by the support and professionalism of the staff here. I told her I better go cause we would be moving soon, and shortly after hanging up we were on our way towards the next plane.
Again a salute was rendered and Akin was loaded into the plane. The Captain was on the ground with us and also saluted. We were soon airborne and in route to Nashville TN. We knew that there was going to be an Honor Guard when we arrived but knew little else. Like I said before there were many moving parts. Several different groups all working together. Once we landed, again everyone remained on the plane and we were escorted down to the ground. TSA had their own honor guard on the ground. The workers climbed into the plane and prepared his casket. They refused to let him come down on the ramp. Six men carried him down. They placed the casket and escorted him to another hanger where the honor guard was waiting. The casket was carried by the honor guard to the center of the hanger and honors were rendered. This was the first time I saw the family. I was really nervous about the reaction of the family to us, but as I watched his mother, Father and Sister walk forward towards that flag draped coffin I started to loose it. I remember thinking “keep it together, don’t do that here” and I bit the inside of my cheek. I watched that family’s pain and agony as they saw their son in a casket. Now I don’t have any children so I can only imagine what they were going through but they’re faces said it all. My heart just broke for them. There was a small ceremony held there with several family and friends. Everyone came up and paid their respects. Then Akin was loaded into the hearse and we started the long trip back to Paducah, KY.
Paducah was about 2 hours away from Nashville. We started up the highway with about 8 cars in a row. It was a long trip up but we got to the funeral home and the honor guard unloaded the casket and headed inside. Once we were inside we again verified the body and made final corrections to the uniform that was draped over the body. No one would see the uniform but we made sure that it was perfect. Once the casket was closed, the family was escorted in and allowed to spend time with him. His Mother and Father approached us and thanked us. The NCO that was with me said some of the kindest words one could possibly say in that situation. I was blown away and for someone who was extremely nervous about that moment handled himself with grace and compassion that I have never seen. I know that must have been very hard for him, but more so for the family. All I could do was offer my condolences, I don’t have the capability that he does. The funeral home was littered with flowers from family and friends. Soon we were headed to our hotel for the night. Akin would be staying in the funeral home over night until the service in the morning. We checked in and changed, soon we were headed to get some food. It was much needed, we hadn’t gotten the chance to eat all day. The day had drawn to a close and I think I feel asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I knew the next day was going to be just as hard.
We woke up and got dressed again for the service. We made our way to the funeral home and opened the viewing hall where the casket had stayed all night. The family had beaten us there and were already inside. I don’t think I could have even left if I was them. I told them that I had served with Akin in Iraq, and told them some stories that I remembered about him. For the first time I saw his father smile. It was a relief to see that, if only for a second.
One by one family and friends funneled into the hall and walked by to pay their respects. We sat in the very back as to let them family pay their respects. It wasn’t important that we were there. But still we never left him. I noticed that the patriot guard riders outside maybe 2 dozen of them or so. For those of you that are not familiar with who the patriot guard riders are, they are a group of riders that escort fallen soldiers and public service members to their final resting place. They also were there for the funeral of my friend Bart who fell in combat. I walked out and thanked them for what they do. I think it is an incredible service they do out of the kindness of their hearts. It was soon time to head over to the church for the mass that they were to hold. The honor guard came and carried the casket and loaded it into the hearse while we saluted. The patriot guard riders were already in place and there was also a police escort. Once we started moving, the police stopped traffic and stepped out of their patrol cars and saluted as Christopher passed. The procession was moving very slowly down the street. And although we didn’t have far to go every vehicle pulled over and stopped as we passed. Some people got out of their cars and stood. As we turned into the church another officer saluted and the patriot guard riders led us into the entrance. The casket was removed by the honor guard and led into the church where mass was held for the family. We stood at attention in the entrance while the service went on. Once the service was over we moved Christopher outside where Taps was played and a 21 gun salute. I tried to keep it together but Taps always gets me. The flag was folded and presented to the mother. Christopher was then carried and loaded into the hearse and taken back to the funeral home.
It was one of the hardest things to go through but it was a very humbling and honoring to be a part of it. But for now it was over, we went back to the hotel and changed and went out for some food. I was joined by 3 guys that were in his platoon. I cant tell you how amazing it was to see these guys after a year of being gone. We drank and smoked and shared stories all night and I can honestly say it was one of the best nights that ive had in a very long time. We all went through war together and no one else can understand what you’ve been through except those that were next to you. I had a Great night, funny how such joy can come from such sorrow. But that’s the way our life is, something tragic can bring brothers back together and remind us of what is important in life.
It was back to Oklahoma for me the next morning and it was a pretty long trip. But I had a lot of time to reflect on what I had been through. Not every Soldier gets the opportunity to go through what I had gone through. Its not something that should be sought out but it is an honor. it’s a horrible thing to know that a Soldier fell but the grace and humility of what I witnessed was far beyond anything I ever expected. I witnessed true human compassion in its purest form. I watched a family that went through the worst experience of their life still smile and embrace the hardship with grace and love and compassion. They are an incredible family and I am still in awe of them. Also if anyone of them reads this I want them to know that if there is anything they need all they need is ask.
In closing I want you to maybe understand what goes into something like this. I wanted to tell a story of travel and human interaction. Were all so busy with our own lives and we grow unconcerned with everyone around us, But I witnessed so much respect and caring from everyone that we encountered. But most of all, This is a story about Christopher Akin and his final trip home. He was our brother and he will never be forgotten….