‘Rain of Heaven’ Pours as Soldiers Mourn Those Lost
‘Rain of Heaven’ Pours as Soldiers Mourn Those Lost
On March 26, 2005, an explosion shattered the calm of the brigade operations center as our radio networks sprang to life. Tower guards quickly reported in, and we trained our dirigible-mounted TV cameras on the scene.
Zooming in only seconds after the blast, we saw a Humvee burning furiously only yards outside the perimeter wall. A small pickup truck had slammed into the vehicle and detonated, killing two Louisiana National Guardsmen and seriously injuring two others. Within minutes, the sergeant major and I were rolling to the scene, while the staff rushed field ambulances to the site.
By now, we had been in Iraq long enough to have learned that an enemy observer was usually in the vicinity to video the attack for later broadcast on Al-Jazeera. An alert battle captain, expertly manipulating the dirigible-mounted cameras, located the observer and shifted the field of view to track him as he fled in a small car with his camcorder. We began to direct quick-reaction forces to the fleeing insurgent. If we could catch him, we likely would learn much about his network.
Suddenly, without warning, the camera view shifted violently back to the burning wreck. Officers in our higher headquarters had overridden the battle staff and taken control of the cameras. Seemingly fascinated, they watched the dead and wounded being carried away as the attacker escaped.
Later, I argued hotly with my superiors. Voyeurism was not an excuse for crippling an operation in progress.
On the scene, I was briefed by the battalion command sergeant major. He was tough, composed and in charge. The targeted unit, a small patrol from the Louisiana Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 141st Field Artillery Regiment, had stopped to pick up an interpreter, as they did every morning at the same time and place. A thinking and adaptive enemy had observed this pattern of behavior and acted on it.
The incident hit the 141st hard. Behind every death in war lies an unspeakable human tragedy that will never really end for the families.
In the midst of war, Sgt. Lee Godbolt of New Orleans had thoughtfully sent his aunt a birthday card. It arrived two days after his death. Godbolt had some college behind him and had worked hard to better himself. Military service was part of that.
Sgt. Isiah Sinclair from Natchitoches, Louisiana, left a widowed mother. His father, twice wounded in Vietnam, had died at age 55. Both were young men, handsome junior NCOs meant for better things.
A few short months later, Hurricane Katrina would batter and smash their hometowns. In the disaster, Denise Godbolt, Lee Godbolt’s mother, would lose his medals and the flag that had draped his coffin. The 141st would redeploy from a year in Iraq and, without rest, go straight into disaster relief on an epic scale.
When we lost a soldier, a solemn ramp ceremony would take place at the airfield. An honor guard would carry the flag-draped casket into the transport plane.
The general, the colonel and the captain would follow, disappearing up the ramp behind the metal casket containing the remains. The chaplain would pray. It was an intimate experience, deeply moving and always wounding.
After a death, the unit would hold a memorial service whenever possible. On a crude stage, the soldier’s helmet would be placed atop a rifle, which was struck into the platform by the bayonet; the rifle was nestled between a pair of boots. The soldier’s dog tags would be hung from the rifle, and a picture of the soldier in uniform would be placed nearby.
As many soldiers as we could spare from the unit would attend. The company commander would speak, often accompanied by short remembrances by the soldier’s close friends. Taps would be played.
Often, no bugler could be found, and the brigade operations officer would do the honors. As his forebears had done in both world wars, Korea and Vietnam, the major would play the mournful notes of the Army’s most beautiful song on his battered instrument, handed down through his family since 1918. Soldiers would file by for a last goodbye, caressing the dog tags, often leaving small mementos.
Always, there were many tears—what one unit chaplain called “the rain of heaven.” From general to private, to say goodbye forever is heartbreaking. We hoped the families would know we did all we could to honor their soldier.
In Harm’s Way
Godbolt and Sinclair were not the first soldiers I’d lost, and they would not be the last. But for me, for reasons I can’t explain, they linger in my memory. In a way, they stand for all my fallen soldiers, and all the families who suffer and mourn. We search for words—selfless, heroic, loyal, patriotic—but they all fall short in describing the enormity of this sacrifice. No democracy, no nation, no people inherit unending prosperity and success. Each generation must earn it and deserve it. It is for us, as President Abraham Lincoln said, to “nobly save or meanly lose” that birthright.
For me, the story of Lee Godbolt and Isiah Sinclair is a daily reminder. Since 9/11, hundreds of thousands of young Americans were sent into harm’s way at the behest of our political leaders. All risked their irreplaceable futures. Many lost them before they had really begun.
Those who wear the uniform do not ask for the reasons behind the orders that send them into danger. People choose their leaders. It is our place to go where they send us. We can only hope they choose wisely and justly. I think Godbolt and Sinclair deserved that. I wish they were still with us. I wish we could all be more deserving of them.
I’ll not forget them. They were my soldiers.
Col. R.D. Hooker Jr., U.S. Army retired, is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank that addresses international affairs from Washington, D.C. A career infantry officer, he commanded a parachute infantry battalion in Kosovo and the Sinai, and a parachute brigade in Baghdad. A former dean of the NATO Defense College, Rome, he served three tours with the National Security Council in the White House.