It all begins with a communications lockdown. All personal communications outside of the camp are forbidden. This is the first sign that something is wrong. After that the rumors begin to circulate. You hope that they are only rumors, but you quickly learn that they are true. The notification process is quickly put into motion. The staff at headquarters here at KAF alerts Ottawa who in turn alerts the rear party. A notification team sets out to inform the next of kin that they have lost a loved one. It is the knock on the door that every family hopes will never happen to them.
Sometimes the media will inform the public that a “NATO soldier” has been killed in Afghanistan, but no names are released until the family has been notified. Meanwhile, the communications lockdown at camp continues in order to prevent the unauthorized release of information. We simply wait until we can speak with our own families once again in order to assure them that we are well.
From there we wait until the word comes to attend the ramp ceremony for the final journey home of the fallen. The timings are only released a few hours in advance for operational security reasons. Then, once it is time, we make our way to the runway to give a final farewell to our fallen comrade. All Canadians at KAF must attend and each nation on the camp will send a small contingent out of respect. In total between 1000 and 1500 soldiers will line the runway.
We stand at attention formed into two groups at both sides of the back of an open aircraft. An armored ambulance pulls up at the end of the line carrying a coffin draped in a Canadian flag. In a landscape that is devoid of color the red maple leaf cuts a stark contrast through its surroundings. KAF is generally a noisy place with the sound of aircraft, generators and vehicles, but at that moment standing on the runway, barely a sound can be heard. The coffin is carefully removed from the ambulance as a padre steps to the microphone and says a few words about the deceased. Then, the coffin is lifted onto the shoulders of eight soldiers and the bagpiper cues up to play “Amazing Grace” as the coffin slowly makes its way between the two formations of soldiers. At this moment we salute and hold there until the coffin has passed by and has been loaded onto the waiting aircraft.
This is our ramp ceremony. It is what we do to honor those who have lost their lives in battle. But we do it for more than just to honor the fallen. Personally, I think it is something that we do for ourselves. We do it because it unites us as one. It is something that makes you feel like you are a part of something that is bigger than yourself. And although taking part in a ramp ceremony to honor a fallen comrade cannot compare to a shared feeling between soldiers who risk their lives for each other on the battlefield, there is a commonality between the two. We are all comrades at arms who, for those few moments, share a mutual respect for one another. There is an unspoken sentiment that exists knowing that the person beside you has made the same sacrifice you have and has volunteered to put him or herself into potential harm’s way in order to accomplish what he or she has set out to do. It is difficult to explain but for those few moments you feel a connection with every individual soldier there despite the fact you do not even know all of them. This moment is something that is personal to those who wear the uniform and can never be completely understood by our families and friends in Canada. It is our private farewell to a fallen friend who has made the ultimate sacrifice. And although I am stealing the motto of an American airborne regiment made famous in the Second World War, in this situation I find it to be fitting - “We stand alone together”.