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Tears for a stranger: The most valuable lesson

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Angela Shepherd
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs Office
I've been in Iraq for a little more than a month now. During that short time, I've already learned several lessons. 

For example, I learned quickly it's a bad idea to walk around outside in shorts and sandals right after you've put lotion on your legs, especially after a dust storm. I've discovered that almost anything at the chow hall is edible so long as you put the right amount of ranch dressing, cheese sauce or Italian dressing on it. I also figured out early on to limit my water intake a couple of hours before bed as the bathrooms are a good 75 yards away through a dark path complete with thick gravel and not-so-stable boarded walkways. 

The most important thing I've learned here, however, is much more serious than that. I learned that America has many brave and dedicated men and women fighting in her name, willing to do whatever it takes to defend her. 

When I came into work one morning just shy of my three-week mark in country, I found out one of the Soldiers my unit supports was killed as I slept comfortably in my bed the night prior. I had never met the 27-year-old sergeant, but my heart broke nonetheless.
Having been stationed at Hurlburt Field for the last two years and in the Air Force for nearly 10 years, I've worked side by side with some of the bravest America has to offer. Their sacrifices and willingness to lay their lives on the line never quite got through to me until that morning though. 

A few days later, I had the honor of participating in the young Soldier's memorial service. 

At precisely 4:45 p.m. that day, I and hundreds of other servicemembers were given the order to fall in. We stood nearly shoulder to shoulder in formation on the small concrete pad flanked by an American flag flying at half staff and a wooden podium with the boots, weapon, helmet and dog tags of the fallen Soldier. 

We stood quietly and sullenly for 15 minutes in the blazing Iraqi heat, waiting to pay tribute to a man most of us never met. As we waited, I glanced over the shoulders of the men in front of me and caught a glimpse of a picture of the young sergeant we had gathered to honor. Just seeing the photograph of this noble man who gave his life in honor of our great nation was enough to make my eyes well up. 

During the memorial, his commander, his supervisor and some of his closest co-workers took to the lectern and spoke on his behalf. They imparted to those of us in attendance that this young man was a great Soldier, a great friend, a great son, a great brother and an all-around great man. 

After the last speaker said their final words about this brave soul, the formation was called to attention. We saluted as the flag was raised to the top of the flag staff and then lowered while Taps played. 

That was the first time in my almost decade-long career I cried while rendering a salute. It was the first time in my life a complete stranger made me cry.
As the tears rolled down my cheek, I felt myself stand a little taller, a little prouder. I finally got it. I just regret that it took me so long to figure it out.
(Editor's note: Sergeant Shepherd is currently deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.)  

While I was sleeping ... In memory of a fallen Soldier

While I was sleeping comfortably in my bed, you were preparing to battle your nation's enemies
As I dreamt of happy places, you entered a place unknown
When my dreams turned to nightmares, your life did the same
While I ran away from my monster, you ran after yours
As I clung to my pillow, you clung to your gun
I was a coward in my nightmare, you were a hero in yours
As I awoke to a new day, you awoke to the Heavens above
As I continue with the same routine, you start anew as a guardian angel
March on brave Soldier!