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Home : News : News
NEWS | May 24, 2024

Memorial Day: A time to remember and reflect

By Sgt. Maj. Stephanie L. Carl Sergeant Major of Public Affairs

When I was a child, Memorial Day was always the sign that summer was just around the corner.

Growing up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the holiday weekend marked the opening of community pools, the end of the Little League baseball season and the first chimes of the ice cream truck making its rounds.

I remember furiously pedaling my bike alongside my friends toward the pool several blocks away so we could make that first cannonball leap toward freedom from the tedious classroom environment we’d endured all school year.

Now, after proudly wearing my Army uniform through more than 25 years and four deployments, those childhood memories are more than a little hazy, and freedom has a different ring. The faded memories of my youth have been replaced by the faces of those I’ve said farewell to.

Leaders, Soldiers and friends alike, I honor them with a tidy stack of more than 20 programs I’ve collected from memorial ceremonies over the years. Periodically, I’ll pull those programs out and reflect on my interactions with the people whose faces stare back at me from the now-worn pages.

Having joined the service during peacetime, my first real experience with loss in the Army came in 2002, when I was assigned to report on several of the Soldiers who were killed in Operation Anaconda.

A specialist at the time, I remember attending Spc. Marc Anderson’s funeral in Florida and talking with the family, friends and former students of the teacher-turned-Army Ranger. One of the things that stood out to me at the time was how proud his parents were, even in their time of grief. Their son made the ultimate sacrifice for something he believed in – our country.

Two years later, on April Fool’s Day 2004, I hit the ground in Afghanistan myself for the first time. Just two months before I arrived, Sgt. Nick Golding was killed in Ghazni after hitting an anti-tank mine. Nick and I were part of the same circle of friends in Hawaii. On Friday nights, a group of us would circle our lawn chairs in the grass and the driveway, where we would throw darts, and play dominoes and spades until all hours of the night, or the next morning. Nick’s obituary reads, “Nicholes D. Golding, 24, died Friday, February 13, 2004, in Ghazni, Afghanistan, serving the cause of Freedom.”

I redeployed to Hawaii in March 2005, and shortly after I departed Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Michael Schafer, a high school classmate, died in the country’s Oruzgan Province. My last mission in country had been in the same area just a few months prior. A note from his dad posted online reads, ”It’s going on 7 years now since you gave so much to keep us free … I love you son, and I am very proud of what you have done.”

Fast forward a year to 2006, when I was caught completely off-guard by the unexpected news of my friend Henry “Will” Linck’s death in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq. Will and I served in the same platoon at the Primary Leader Development Course — the precursor to today’s Warrior Leader Course — competed against each other for the Leadership Award, which he won, deployed to Afghanistan together, and I’d even dated one of his friends briefly.

In his obituary, his older brother Michael reported that Will “died doing something he believed in and loved.” Today, I get to visit Will whenever I want at Arlington National Cemetery. I often make the trip to Section 60 on Memorial Day weekend, where it brings me joy to see the family and former comrades who gather around the headstones to reminisce and celebrate the lives of the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Memorial Day weekend 2011 had me back in Afghanistan, serving with the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade. Friday, May 26, started with an early morning call to report to the tactical operations center to fulfill my duties as the brigade public affairs officer in response to a downed aircraft or “fallen angel.”

The rest of the weekend became a blur as we encountered additional fallen angels and tragically, the loss of six of our Pathfinders, two Air Force explosive ordnance technicians and two of our Afghan partners in a series of improvised explosive device detonations.

I spent lots of time with that unit, and their former commander is one of my best friends today. He’ll be running beside me, or in front of me, again this year at the Army Ten Miler. Staff Sgt. Ergin Osman was a platoon sergeant killed that day. I still remember the scoff he gave me when we were first introduced, and I told him I anticipated my public affairs team participating in quite a few missions with his organization as we emphasized partnership with our Afghan counterparts. The cocky grin he wears in his memorial photo always reminds me of that first conversation.

In 2013, back in Afghanistan for the third time, this time serving with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), I was charged with the additional duty of Ramp Ceremony NCO in charge.

Whenever we had a fallen member of our task force in Regional Command–East, whether U.S. or partner nation, military or civilian, I had the responsibility for coordinating the assets that would render honors to the fallen hero at the flight line. It was my responsibility to ensure pallbearers were identified and properly trained well in advance, to facilitate the rehearsals with the color guard, the chaplain and the band.

Once the fallen hero arrived at the flight line, I shared responsibility with our division operations sergeant major for ensuring the ceremony was executed in a timely and respectful manner, and that proper courtesy and support were afforded to any family members who might be present and flying with the remains. Today, I reflect on this responsibility as perhaps the single most important role I’ve filled throughout my career.

That reality hit me on July 2, 2013, when one of my own Soldiers, Spc. Hilda Clayton, was the fallen hero I was helping to send home to her final resting place.

As my career continued, I went on to lose more Soldiers as I assumed duties as a first sergeant at the Fort Campbell Warrior Transition Unit, now called a Soldier Recovery Unit. Many of my Soldiers were terminally ill, fighting against various forms of cancer.

The family we built in the unit buoyed us through the emotional challenges we had to endure. I remember one of my Soldiers came into my office one Friday afternoon after a particularly difficult week. She looked at me and said, “First sergeant, could you use a hug? Because I could really use a hug right now.” That assignment taught me compassion and humility. It made me a better leader. It’s also the assignment where I learned to truly appreciate counseling to help with grief.

Now in my fifth iteration of counseling throughout my career, I find myself working through the loss of my own mother, as well as the deaths of a few other Soldiers in the past couple of years that took an emotional toll on me. I also find myself in a completely different place as this Memorial Day approaches.

As the days grow longer with summer’s nearing, I find myself a little more nostalgic for those childhood memories. I sit on my balcony and take in the morning air with a different reflection than in years past. This year, I find myself able to once again truly appreciate the world around me, almost with the same giddiness I recall from my childhood. I think about all the little things I’m able to enjoy as an American because of the sacrifices of the heroes I’ve personally known through the years. The smell of flowers, the warmth of the sun and the taste of ice cream all come just a little bit sweeter to me as I’ve learned to appreciate what freedom really means and requires.

Managing Your Grief and Loss

Throughout my career, I've encountered more than my fair share of loss, and with it the guilt and grief that inevitably follow. The times I've been most successful are those times in which I've acknowledged I didn't have the strength to navigate these challenges alone. From chaplains to Military Family Life Consultants to embedded behavioral health, to behavioral health, to non-profit organizations, there are an abundance of resources who are ready to help us navigate the difficult path of reconciling the mental and emotional challenges we encounter.

Each time I've sought help, I've emerged more resilient and confident than I ever believed possible at the moment. If you find yourself struggling, please reach out to your friends, family and leaders for the support you need to seek professional help. Remember, you are worth it.

For more information on services available to you, visit Military One Source.

If in crisis, please contact the Military Crisis Line by dialing 988 or texting 838255. You will be connected with a qualified responder who is ready to listen and help.

Sergeant Major of Public Affairs Stephanie L. Carl

Sgt. Maj. Stephanie L. Carl became the 11th Sergeant Major of Army Public Affairs on July 1, 2021.

As the Army’s senior public affairs enlisted Soldier, Sgt. Maj. Carl advises the Chief of Public Affairs, Office of the Secretary of the Army, on all matters affecting the career field. She also devotes time to proponency issues, providing guidance and direction on current and future doctrine, force structure and the training and equipping needs of public affairs personnel and units across the Army.