At Army base, intimate and isolated, a soldier’s death brings intense emotion
The armed forces used to be populated by young draftees. Back home, parents and family waited and girlfriends stationed themselves at the mailbox. Now, the services are filled with young married volunteers, often with children and unmarried couples who are no different in their familial structure.
Unlike previous generations large numbers of the families of these service members live on base surrounded by others in the exact same circumstances. They are away from the community at large and live in a military society and culture as opposed to living in a a civilian environment.
This change in military culture has brought big changes, some good and some not so good. When all is said and done, we need to be particularly mindful of how military veterans and their families are treated.
Two visitors, their arrivals separated by a few hours, stop at a grave in Section 6, Row 5 of the Veterans Cemetery here. The burial grounds are cold and quiet.
A few miles away at Fort Campbell, thousands of soldiers are preparing for yet another tour in Afghanistan.
The first visitor arrives a little after 10 a.m. He is tall and lean, a 42-year-old Army officer. He wears a dark-blue dress uniform with four stripes on his right sleeve, each mark indicating six months spent in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Lt. Col. Joel B. Vowell commanded the soldier who lies in the grave. Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga and five others died in an assault on an insurgent sanctuary in Afghanistan that Vowell planned and led a few weeks before his battalion came home. The deaths caused some soldiers and families to question whether the operation was necessary. The whispers stung Vowell deeply.
Among the angriest was Arrechaga’s 23-year-old widow, Seana. As Vowell kneels at the grave on Veterans Day, he can see a photograph of the couple clasping hands at their wedding. The photo is tucked behind a drawing of a ghost and a small sign that says “Spooky,” decorations Seana has placed for Halloween.
The relationship between Vowell and Seana, at once distant and uncomfortably intimate, reflects an important change in the American military. In past wars, soldiers were mostly unmarried draftees who deployed to combat zones as individuals. Commanders often barely knew their men.
Today, troops fight as units, living and training together for years on gated Army bases far from the country’s big cities. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former top commander in Afghanistan, calls the practice “exclusionary bonding.”
The close bonds, sealed by the military’s growing sense that it is fighting a war that America has forgotten, have helped the Army withstand the strain of a decade of combat. One of the service’s biggest successes is that it has not been torn apart by the widespread discipline problems, racial tension and drug abuse of the Vietnam War era.
For those in tightknit military communities, the combination of proximity and isolation can produce intense emotion, especially in the wake of a soldier’s death.