I Will Remember Them…

I was young. Arrogant, maybe… Though my youthful soul had been tested and forged within the fires of tragedy and tribulation, nothing had prepared me for what I was doing in that moment on that run way. I stood rigid, still, tall and motionless in-spite of the galling winds. To my left, a man dressed just like me and to my right, the same – I stood within a row of brothers – brothers that were once strangers. Now we stood shoulder to shoulder, bound by our devotion to duty. And in that moment, our duty was to perform one of the single, most difficult things I have ever had to do. On that day, I was only 23-years old. And on that same day, a 23-year old was dead…

I joined the army shortly after high-school. I did not come from a lineage of soldiers nor serviceman. My desire to serve grew from a feeling of inadequacy growing-up. It was born from helplessness and despair.

When I was growing-up I had to watch as my father revealed himself to be a monster and a coward. A man who beats children, and molests them too… I watched as my mother’s body became broken, bruised and tormented by Cancer and chemo. I even held deceased columns of my mother’s hair in my hand as I tried to hold it back from the toilet as she rid herself of the medicinal poison, one explosion after the other.

I watched my siblings come and go. When they left, it was not from desire nor their first day of college, the causation was my mother’s unpredictably venomous wrath. Even when she was healthy, she was sick…

I was relegated by my diminutive age to watch and observe all of this, and watch I did. I watched and could do nothing about any of it. Year by year, I felt as though I was growing more and more useless. Until one day I saw an opportunity to help – I saw a soldier on TV and was captivated and admittedly flummoxed by the red cross that boasted from his arm. I had never seen a soldier with the markings of a medic holding a rifle before. I began reading books at my school library about wartime medics and what they did. Each ingested line of knowledge that I consumed gave birth to a rapidly growing fire of idea – I was going to join the ARMY!

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I thought that it would be a great way to help those in need as well as procure the resource that my mother so ravenously desired – money! Our family was not well off, much to the chagrin of my dear mum. This idea of joining the army seemed perfect on all fronts.

My older brother took me to the local recruiting station the summer after I had graduated. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be an infantryman (I did not think I was smart enough to be a medic and thus decided that a grunt was better than nothing). A few weeks later I was called back to the recruiting centre to receive the results of my enlistment process. When the officer began to speak, she did so through soft tone, an almost sympathetic oration – she knew how badly I wanted to serve – but she broke the news to me, I couldn’t! At least, not as an infantry soldier. My eyesight was too poor for combat arms trades. I was devastated and once again reduced to inadequacy. I felt myself wanting to cry. I swallowed hard with staccato until the feeling transformed into anger. I raised my head and looked the female officer in the eyes and thanked her for her time.

As I stood up to skulk off into the ether of civilian indolence, her empathetic voice halted me. She informed me that my eyesight was not good enough for combat arms, but indicated that I had scored high enough on my entry exam to enlist into a support trade. She then slid a handful of pamphlets across her desk towards me and as if by some form of movie magic and heartwarming scripting, the first leaflet, the one atop of them all read; MEDIC… I scored high enough to be a medic! I, Matthew J, Heneghan, was going to be a soldier that boasted a red cross on his arm!!!

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One of the first pictures I have after becoming medic qualified.

And that’s exactly what happened – I passed all forms of testing, all phases of military training until that fateful day came that I was given the title, medic. No longer useless, but a titular hero instead, I thought.

And that is how these men that stood on either side of me became my brothers. We trained together, lived together and served together. Everything that we did, it was done as one. One cohesive unit. An unbreakable bond, a band, a band of brothers. We laughed together, fought with one another, drank and made up with one another. We celebrated when one of us was stupid enough to run off and get married, and we comforted each other when others wouldn’t. We did it all, together. And when one of us died… well, little bits of us died as well.

“Boomer,” or, Cpl. Andrew James Eykelenboom, aged 23. was one of our brothers. He too boasted a red cross on his arm. And on a warm August day in 2006, he gave his life in service to his country, to you, to me, to all of us…

A few days after his death, I was stood alongside my remaining brothers on a runway after having just placed a flag draped casket into the mouth of an awaiting hearse.

I was stood in a row of four. Across from me, another row of four. We stared back at one another and we did not move. We were statues of discipline. And when my eye first caught sight of Boomer’s mother and father, I did-not-move!

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They slowly walked towards the wheeled tomb that now held their son. We were stood on either side of them. Amidst the cacophonous hum of jet engines, I could hear horrible sobs of bereavement leave the chest of Maureen, Boomers mom. Behind them, a tall figure that resembled a dead man with unrivaled accuracy – Boomer’s brother. Once more, all I could do was watch… and do nothing…

On the outside I was the perfect carving of a soldier, stoic and still. On the inside, I was precipitously disintegrating into a wounded boy, a damn child. A child that felt… inadequate.

Later that evening, the boys and I found ourselves once more shoulder to shoulder while sat up at the bar. We each held a cold bottle or glass in hand. The TV atop of the bar screamed at all of us while showing us images of earlier in the day. We watched ourselves in third-person, carrying the remains of our fallen brother. What a surreal moment to have as a memory of experience.

There is no training to prepare you for that…

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Boomer would not be the only brother I would lose while in service. Many more soldiers that boasted red crosses would die. There is no training that can prepare you for that, either…

So, as you can likely imagine – this time of year is hard for me – hard for many like me.

I am no longer stood shoulder to shoulder, though. I am alone, in a sense…

This year, this Remembrance Day, marks the first time that I will be sober prior, during and after. It also marks the first time for feeling all of it… I am 23 again… and on this day, a 23-year old is dying, dying on the inside. Outwardly though, still the perfect soldier…

I will likely cry on the eleventh, and that’s okay. I am allowed to be sad. The same as I am allowed to be sad now. I am mourning my brothers with the clarity of a sober mind.

I won’t lie to you, I still feel very inadequate. For I cannot rid myself of this pain nor anyone of theirs. My brothers are dead and I am not. To me, that is fucking heartbreaking.

But along with said sober mind comes a renewed determination and sense of duty. Although painful, I am learning to live again. To live the life that has been gifted to me by those who fell to ensure it. Men like my brothers. And I am determined – determined to live the best possible life that I can. I owe that to myself along with a humble gratitude to them, the fallen.

One of the hardest things I have ever had to do is lower one of my own ilk into the earth. But the easiest thing I will ever have to do is remember. And remember them I will. All of them. The ones that fell in the great war, and the wars after… and the wars still to come, God forbid.

Rest easy, brothers. Thank you…

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