Remembering on Memorial Day

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France, on Memorial Day, 2015

You can’t tell, but if the cameraman (yours truly) turned around, you’d be able to see the hundreds of people gathered there that late-May day in the French countryside near the small village of Belleau. I took this picture in 2015, during the commemoration of the sacrifice of the men buried there. But nothing has really changed in that area over the years and this photo could just as easily have been from 1937 when the cemetery was first dedicated. Although the trees are probably taller now. Or it could have been taken this year, 2017, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the entry of U.S. troops into WWI, the war that resulted in this cemetery being necessary.

“Time won’t dim the glory of their deeds,” said General Pershing, a contemporary of the men buried in the graves in my photo. And indeed it cannot.

The ceremony that day in 2015 was marvelous. The speeches went on a bit too long and I’d be hard pressed to remember anything anybody said — although I do have a vague memory of having had a hand in drafting one or two of those sets of remarks. And there hardly could have been an association or remembrance committee or local government official who didn’t lay a wreath at the monument. But the United States Marine Corps band stole the show with some fancy footwork and a brilliant rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” — whoever the piccolo soloist was deserved a raise that day, she was utterly marvelous.

But this is not a WWI story. This one is from a contemporary war. A story from a conflict that long ago became the longest war the U.S. has ever waged, with no particular end in sight.

Thalia S. Ramirez was born in New York in the mid 1980s. She grew up in Kenya. She enlisted in the U.S. Army while living in Texas. She eventually became an Army helicopter pilot. She was a soldier, but she was also a wife and a sister and a daughter and a friend. Not my friend though. I never met her. And I never will. But a small part of her story is a small part of mine too.

Through talking to the people who loved her, I was able to piece together: she was full of life, she was good at her job, she loved being a soldier, even if becoming one wasn’t likely something she set out to do when she moved away from home. She was devoted to her friends and the other members of her unit. She loved her husband and was quick with a joke and a laugh. And the photos I’ve seen of her captured a smile that hints at a delightful mischievousness.

Her husband was also a soldier, Jesse I think his name was, a Staff Sergeant I think, with the 82nd Airborne. And they had no children. It occurs to me that I might be misremembering her husband’s details. But Thalia’s are etched in my memory.

Thalia’s father, a man named Justin Ramirez, was American. We never did end up finding him, and I never learned anything about him — he was only ever just a name on a form to me.

Alexandra was her mother. It’s been a few years now since I talked with her, but her friends, of which I hope I am one, call her Alex.

Alex was born in Kenya in the early 1960s, just about two years before independence from the UK. She was the child of a white Kenyan father and an African Kenyan mother. Race has a complicated history in Kenya — an important history not strictly relevant here, so I won’t go into depth. But the terms are self-explanatory and the implications are fairly obvious.

In the early 1980s, Alex went to study at the University of Texas in Austin and met Justin Ramirez at some point thereafter. A year or two later, Alex was in New York where she gave birth to a baby girl she named Thalia.

In the ancient Greek tradition, Thalia, along with her sisters Aglaea and Euphrosyne, were the three “graces” or “charities.” Thalia, or Abundance, was the goddess of festivity and humor. The name is also associated with the nine muses of ancient Greece — Thalia was the patron of comedy. If one wants the gods to bless a child with laughter and a love of life, christening the newborn Thalia is a good way to appease them, no doubt.

Since baby Thalia was born in the U.S., citizenship was automatic, even though her mother was only a Kenyan citizen at the time. Alex moved back home to Kenya shortly after her new muse was born in order to raise the child in familiar surroundings.

Alex lived with her daughter in her parents’ house on Nandi Road in a suburb of Nairobi known as Karen. The suburb so named because it was where Karen Blixen from Denmark, also known as Isak Dinesen, author of the book Out of Africa, had her coffee plantation. Ramirez was out of the picture by then, but back in Kenya, Alex eventually added four other children to her family. I never thought to ask, nor did Alex ever tell me, who Thalia’s step-father was in Kenya, or if she even had one. All I know is that there was never a husband or man around while I was meeting with Alex on a fairly regular basis.

Alex has, and had, some problems. As we all do. Having parents in a mixed-race marriage, particularly given the place and timing, East Africa in the 1960s, could not have been easy for her and her family to deal with. And she’s had to battle the curse of addiction. Thankfully, the last time I talked to her, a few years ago now, though, to be sure, she was relying on her Christian faith to help her steer clear of the bottle. Unfortunately, my visit and the circumstances under which we met likely pushed her off that proverbial wagon for a time in late 2012. Understandably so, I think, as the reason I came into her life was, well. Less than ideal. But I made a point of never prying or judging. Anything less would have been rude.

After Thalia graduated high school in Kenya in the early 00s, she decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and attend school at the University of Texas. She went to classes for a few years, but eventually dropped out for whatever reason, and enlisted in the U.S. Army. The Army made her a water purification specialist in 2003. And then a few years later, she applied to become a helicopter pilot. She went to Warrant Officer Candidate school at Fort Rucker, Alabama and then learned how to fly.

I’ve gotten the sense, although I’ve never asked, that Alex and Thalia weren’t on the best of terms before Thalia went to Afghanistan in 2012. I’m fairly certain Alex hadn’t even met Thalia’s husband before the events later that year brought them together. I’m probably wrong, though, so who knows. But I do know Thalia visited her mother in Nairobi during a previous deployment to Iraq, in 2009 or so. And the travel request she submitted for this prior trip home turned out to be the key to enabling me to find Alex after a few days of searching.

September 5th, 2012 wasn’t a terribly remarkable day in world history. In Turkey, an ammunition bunker exploded killing 25 soldiers. In southern India, in the state of Tamil Nadu, 40 people died when a firecracker factory exploded. All those deaths made news, but none of them were part of my immediate consciousness. But it was also the day Chief Warrant Officer 2 Thalia S. Ramirez and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jose Montenegro Jr. boarded their OH-58D Kiowa helicopter in Logar Province, Afghanistan, one last time.

They didn’t know it was the last time, of course. No doubt they laughed with the ground crew about a shared joke just before closing the door and taking off. I’m sure they had made plans to meet up with friends later in the evening to play a card game in the dining facility. Or they were taking classes and hoped to catch up on some homework after a day out on their mission. Or they had made plans to call loved ones back home and be anxious together over the phone or a Skype call or Facebook chat about how much time they had left on deployment. I like to think somebody remembers the last conversation they had with both of them before they went out for their mission that day and is keeping their memory alive.

The next day, September 6th, I got a phone call from the mortuary affairs office of U.S. Army Europe, then located in Heidelberg, Germany. CW2 Thalia Ramirez had put her mother’s name on emergency notification documents and as my office was the U.S. Military representation in Kenya, I took the call.

Later in the day, we drove to Karen looking for the address Thalia had listed for her mother, only to find the address didn’t exist.

One constant in any soldier’s life is paperwork. Enlistment papers and/or commissioning papers. Award certificates, travel orders, promotion orders. Inventories, counseling sessions, annual performance reviews, vehicle logs, maintenance logs, training records, physical fitness tests, duty rosters, medical records, and on and on. And deployment is particularly paperwork heavy — when soldiers deploy to a war zone they fill out multiple documents: life insurance forms, emergency notification forms, wills, powers of attorney, and many others. Nobody takes these pre-deployment forms really seriously, though, particularly the part where one is made to pick a place to be buried — the arrogance of youth perhaps. As it wasn’t Thalia’s, or likely many in her unit’s first trip to either Iraq or Afghanistan, the paperwork drill was probably habit by then. Something you do because the deployment checklist says you have to. But one doesn’t put a lot of thought into it.

Soldiers die in war — all soldiers know it. But even so, death is what happens to the other guy. The joke goes: the General was addressing the troops and said, “two out of every three of you won’t make it home alive.” So each soldier looked to the fellow on his left and on his right and thought to himself, “you poor bastards.”

I saw Thalia’s handwritten deployment forms in the course of my duties and remember thinking she likely filled them out in haste. I’m sure she remembered that her mother lived on Nandi… Lane… or Nandi Road… or something. And the house number? Whatever. Pick a number between 1 and nobody cares. Because it didn’t really matter, she probably thought — nobody is ever going to go try to actually find it. Or, more likely, she didn’t think about it at all. She also wrote she wanted to be buried in Arlington with her U.S. Army Stetson. Because, well, why not. Might as well put something on the form. The casual arrogance of a young person who is convinced she’ll live forever knows no bounds.

After driving around Karen for an afternoon looking for a house that isn’t there on a road that doesn’t exist, I had the inspiration to dig further through the files to which we have access and look for Thalia’s name in a visit request database hoping something would come up. Turned out she had listed Alex’s father’s mobile phone number on a visit request she had filed with our office several years before during a previous deployment. I called the number and her grandfather passed the message to her mother that I needed to speak with her. And it was quite urgent that I do so.

Finally, early Saturday morning, September 8th, three days after her daughter and her friend died as a result of enemy fire in remote Afghanistan, I spoke with Alex.

“My name is Chief Warrant Officer 3 David Smeigh, with the U.S. Defense Attache’s Office at the U.S. Embassy here in Nairobi … are you Alexandra, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Thalia S. Ramirez’s mother?”

“Yes…” Alex said tentatively.

“Are you going to be home today, I need to come see you.”

“Yes… but can’t you tell me what this is about over the phone?”

“No, ma’am, I need your correct address and I need to see you right away, face to face.”

I wore a dark suit. My boss, a U.S Air Force Colonel, wore his full military dress uniform. We climbed in the giant Toyota LandCruiser with U.S. Embassy diplomatic license plates and drove to the house. When we stepped out of the truck the realization of what was about to happen smashed right into her and Alex immediately began to lose control.

We went into the house and the Colonel began, “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret…”

It was the first time I was involved in something like this, and it was totally surreal.

In Alex’s house, as the less threatening member of the team in just a suit and tie, I sat down with the members of the family present who were not then overcome by grief and took some important information — names, phone numbers, birthdays, relationships to the deceased, among other important data. As with anything in the Army, even in death…well, no, especially in death, there is a lot of paperwork.

The initial contact in cases like these is purposefully brief: deliver the message, quickly get some important phone numbers and other information, leave a packet of instructions to be read later, make sure there is a family member or friend present for the next of kin to rely on, and then get the hell out of the way. And when we went to leave about ten minutes after delivering the message that enemy fire had shot down Thalia and her friend, co-pilot, and battle buddy Jose, we found Alex outside, inconsolable, lying in a heap in the driveway.

When I returned home later, I had a drink myself to calm my nerves. Whiskey. Straight up.

Sadly, this wasn’t the last time I had to perform this mission — a few years later I did put a uniform on the night we told a 17-year-old French boy that his American soldier father, who, at Christmastime, had promised his son he would fly to Paris to attend his high school graduation a few months later, had committed suicide earlier in the day. But telling a mother her daughter had been killed in action in Afghanistan was a hard, hard thing, too. Not harder than being a member of either family the day I came crashing through their lives, though, of course.

On this Memorial Day, and every Memorial Day since September 2012, I like to think about Thalia and her sacrifice and how she is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery with the Stetson she earned at Fort Bragg before she deployed to Afghanistan. And I like to think about her mother Alex and her sacrifice, too.

I like to think about the men of WWI who fought at Belleau Wood.

I like to think about Louis Santucci, younger brother of my nephew’s great-grandmother, a Private in the 28th Infantry, U.S. Army, killed in action on August 10th, 1944, buried at Normandy American Cemetery, Plot C, Row 18, Grave 47.

And I like to think about Clarence Rowlison, my mother’s uncle, her father’s half-brother, a Staff Sergeant in the 511th Bomber Squadron, 351st Bomber Group, U.S. Army Air Corps, lost at sea on December 22, 1943, when the aircraft he had volunteered to be a tail gunner on was shot down during a bombing mission, now honored on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery in the UK.

I like to remember the sacrifices all people have ever made in the defense of freedom. I like to remember the sacrifices their families made when their loved ones went away and particularly when they never came home.

So, on this day of memory, this Memorial Day, and every other day of the year too, may the blessings of whatever religious faith you choose be with you. And even if you choose none, may the blessings of the virtue of sacrifice inspire you to selflessness, as it does for me.