I once held a box. Lifted that box and carried that box. My shoulders bore the burden of its weight. Even if in physicality, the weight was almost non-existent. Frightfully absent of such. My ceremoniously gloved fingertips gently grazed its metal claps and unforgivingly rigid sides. I carried this box with seven other men. Four on each side. This box was draped in our nations flag. Through the thin satin cloth that lay atop, my ear pressed against this metal tomb, I could feel the sting of its lifeless chill emanating through.
For a few short moments that seemed to last forever, we stood still and without movement. This box rested across each of our young shoulders. A horribly humbling weight carried by we, the young eight. Ahead of us, some yards away, an awaiting hearse. The rear doors splayed open. Awaiting our arrival.
When given the order to do so, we began methodically moving as one. First, with our left foot. And then our right. Back our left. Left. Right. Left…
Slowly, we marched forward through the unseasonably cold, damp day in August. Rain fell like a mist. Soaking us to the bone. With each step, we neared the hearse, yet it seemed to get further and further away. Every step taken, this box seemed to get heavier and heavier. Even if only in mind. For the reality was, there was almost nothing, inside. Only small remains of what used to be a man.
Knowing what was meant to be in the box, made this the heaviest thing that I have ever carried. Likely, will ever carry. And if I am honest, I am not at all saddened by that prospect. The prospect of never having to carry another cold steel box. Complete with its precious cargo. A slain soldier.
To my left, there was a group of tired and weary soldiers, dawned in tan uniforms, all standing at attention. Somberly watching as we performed our task. They had served with him – the man in the box. And now, they watched as he returned home. But, not like they had just done.
That’s a sad reality too – soldiers whom had just returned from war, coming home should be one of the most exciting days of their lives, and yet, their very first interaction of home would be more sadness and death. Horrible thought isn’t it. There were no jubilant faces in the crowd this day. I recall that vividly. Even if only seeing it from the corners of my eyes.
Within this box, this, plain, cold metal tomb, enveloped by our nations red and white cloth, was a hero. A man those of us in uniform would call, ‘brother’. To the world, at least for a short time, he would become known as the first Canadian medic to be killed in combat since Korea. But, for me and my seven other brothers, he would simply be known as: sorely missed. Never to be forgotten. A hero. A brother-of-arms. Slain by the enemy. Immortalized in photo and tales told by those who knew him best.
On that day though, to me, he would become known as: The weightless man. You see, the brutality of his death was such that recovery of him, was of little success. So, whatever was in the casket now carried by us was – well, it was what it was… The heaviest kind of an absent weight.
On August 11th of 2006, Cpl. Andrew James Eykelenboom, a Canadian Forces Medic, was killed while on duty in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber. He was less than two weeks away from coming home. He was just 23 years, 9 months, and eight days old.
A few short days later, along with seven other men, seven other brothers, I carried his remains within an enclosed steel case – a casket, off of the plane from that far away land of dust and stone. It was the first-time war became a reality to me. It was no longer just a headline on the news. It was palpable and breathtakingly real. In the days that followed, I would watch – I would watch and see as grizzled soldiers whose medals were miles long, wept and gave way to their human side of loss. It’s like watching a mountain crumble. Piece, by piece.
After placing the casket into the awaiting hearse on the tarmac, I watched as a grief-stricken family said their heartbreaking hello’s, and final goodbye’s. His mother’s cries of pain could be heard over the deafening engines of the plane that he had been removed from moments ago. Though I could not hear them, the gentle sobs of his father tore through my armor, and gripped at my heart. I felt the lump of emotion in my throat begin to grow, and I angrily swallowed it. Burying it deep inside. My duty, my job, my task was to remain stoic and expressionless. Despite having to watch this horrific display of grief unfold before us.
I was a young man at this time. Barely breaking into the world. Christ, I was only a private. But I tell you this; nothing will age you faster, then carrying the immense weight, of a flag-draped casket many steps, to an awaiting hearse in front of the slain soldier’s bereaved family. Then watching as the reality seeps into them as they near the symbolic box. Each step they took, agony became them.
When the mother turned and fleetingly glanced at each of us, standing on either side of her family, it felt as though we were ignoring her. We were standing at attention and forbidden to move. I cannot explain to you the complexity that comes with having pride in a task, while feeling utterly deplorable as a human being. I allowed for my eyes to follow her, even though I had told them not to.
A few short days passed, and on a warm August morning, we would burry Andrew. Cpl. Eykelenboom. That flag that had once draped itself atop of the casket, was now folded crisply, and without error by my brothers and I. And then, ceremoniously handed to a wounded mother and distraught father, standing directly behind me. Once again, sobs of grief gripped at my heart, and I stood completely still. Unable to move.
I have not forgotten that day. It is likely that I never will. And as the days near to the anniversary, I find myself thinking of him, of Andrew, more and more. Or, as the unit affectionately knew him as: “Boomer”. I think of Boomer, and those days in August. I swear if I blink, its as if I am right there. Doing it all again. I feel the blistering heat that punished us on the day of the funeral. I feel the sweat roll down my back, and pool at my belt line. I hate the sun. On that day and many others, it has done nothing but let me down. It serves as a reminder, a painful one, of the tasks that I have performed while under it. Carrying Boomer being one…
Boomer has played a large part in my adult life. He has helped shape the things that I find important. He has brought perspective towards the things that may have ordinarily made me angry in the past, but now seem so, trivial. I have a photo of Boomer on my phone. It is the first thing I put on each new phone I get. When I am feeling manacled by PSTD and the things that I have seen and done, sometimes I pull my phone out, and I just look at it. At the picture. I see young man dressed in full-fighting order (combat uniform and gear) and observe his boyish smile. When I do that, I try to take pride in all I have done, and maintain discipline while trying to heal. I do that because, he had nothing but pride in what he did. And rightfully so.
On August 11th, take a moment of your day, pause and stop what you are doing. Type Andrew’s name into a search engine. Take a few moments to read about him. I promise you that you will not be disappointed. For you will read tales of a hero. Of a kind man with a child like spirit and a cheeky grin. You will learn that he was both ferocious as a warrior, and compassionate as a healer. You will learn of the many significant battles that he took part in, and the lives that he saved while doing so.
Rest easy Andrew. Cpl. Andrew James Eykelenboom. Rest easy, and thank you for your service. You will not soon be forgotten.
Rest easy brother.