She said she had heard about those shoes.
Back in the day, Building 171 at Kelly Air Force Base was a huge warehouse of a building – and the Vietnam War meant that every square foot of it was used. In the 1970s, walls separated different departments and partitions separated the various offices and smaller hallways.
The partitions were the government-green kind; drab and official. You could barely see the tops of the heads of people standing and could only catch a glimpse of their shoes as they walked by.
Not many people used the east entrance to the Directorate of Energy Management after the shift started. But this morning, the doors opened wide. The morning sun flashed down the waxed floors and visitors entered.
And then, a strange sound – taps. Taps on the shoes gave a metallic sound as they hit the tile. And it was more than one pair of shoes – and they were marching in unison. I was watching the floor under the partition, waiting for a glimpse of the source of this unusual sound.
Two pairs of black oxfords, spit-shined to a high gloss, walked by. I rose from my desk to see who was wearing such strange footwear and where they were going. My boss was at the end of the partition, ushering people back to their desks.
I caught a glimpse of two soldiers in their Class “A” uniforms talking softly to a co-worker. She looked sad.
She explained it all to me the next week. She said she had heard about those shoes.
Federal manuals state that the next of kin of a soldier who has died will be notified by a uniformed service representative. He or she will wear the Class “A” uniform and present a professional and soldierly appearance when making notification.
My co-worker’s son served in the military and she knew he had died even before she saw the notification team. The spit and polished members of the ‘bad news bearers’ present an impressive image but it is a sight no one wants to see. The taps of their shoes a sound no one wants to hear.
The film, “We Were Soldiers,” depicts a time during the Vietnam War when telegram notification, delivered by taxi drivers, was the method of informing the next of kin of battlefield casualties. The complaints created by this system prompted the military to create notification teams like the ones that visited my friend. A more recent movie, “The Messenger,” portrays current day scenarios.
Whether or not a soldier died in the line of duty or years after being discharged, any member who served honorably is eligible for burial in a National Cemetery. On Memorial Day, local Boy Scouts place thousands of flags by the gravestones of veterans buried at Fort Sam Houston.
The sea of red, white, and blue fluttering in the spring breeze is more memorable than the smell of a backyard barbeque. Pay a visit to the National Cemetery on Memorial Day. It will lift your soul.
For the Soldiers Who Returned Too Soon by Don Mathis
How does a small Texas town
grieve for its native son?
Front-page news and letters
in the daily paper are run.
Friends call the soldier’s family
to see what can be done.
Cards and expressions of sympathy
are sent to the next of kin.
People reach out to help
as they would do for a friend.
A realization is gained
of what it means to be an American.
Ribbons that say, “Support Our Troops,”
mean more in this part of the state
than Red, White, and Blue decals
or flags by the license plate.
It means we carry our brother
and not complain about the weight.
Water cannons shower the runway
as the special cargo touches down.
The deafening roar of jet engines
fills the air with sound.
Such is the tribute at the airport
in this proud but rural town.
Hundreds attend the funeral –
a motorcycle escort waits outside.
The Patriot Guard shows support,
saluting the soldier’s last ride.
It’s enough to make a downcast heart
beat fast and swell with pride.
The funeral cortege, two miles long,
glides on down the way.
Someday the county will make another monument
to honor those passed away.
And future children will stop by
to see what the words in stone shall say.
Today, the grave is flowered,
decorated and festooned.
But the grief is raw and red,
as an open wound.
And we recall this soldier –
and others – who returned too soon.
*Featured/top image: Fort Sam Houston on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Photo by Don Mathis.