A Veteran Remembers Memorial Day in Afghanistan

Memorial Day, 2012 wasn’t the same as I remember growing up:  There were no backyard BBQs. There was no summertime music. There were no pool parties, or girls to chase.

Two years ago, my reserve unit and I took a “less traditional” vacation from work. Instead of packing up for a picnic, we packed our bags for Kandahar, Afghanistan, a place better known for relentless dust, open sewage (there is a literal “poop pond” on base), incomparable noise, and rocket attacks.

I’ll never forget my first night at war. There was no sleep that night. The first time I drifted off for a moment, I awoke to a barrage of artillery fire, gun ships,  attack sirens, and helicopters hovering so closely overhead that it shook the walls of my six-man bunk. I was hoping it was a nightmare.

“We’re under attack? I just got here!” Not this time…just training. I wasn’t sure my heartbeat would ever slow.

It did slow, however, as I became accustomed to the sounds of war. I even forgot about the constant 110-degree heat (FYI sewage smells worse as it heats), made hotter by full combat gear, and an M16 that I had to carry everywhere (yes, everywhere).

There is one thing I didn’t get used to, however. No matter how much we pretended to not let it bother us, I never got used to death.

Army Staff Sergeant Israel Nuanes provided my first introduction to this side of war. I was only in the country a few days, when his name came across my desk. Part of my job was to ensure the safe transport of the remains of my fallen brothers back to their final resting place stateside.

SSgt. Nuanes was killed by an IED on May 12, 2012. Rest in peace my brother. I will never forget you.

He was just the first of nearly 100 airmen, marines, seamen, and soldiers I personally had to send home after their premature deaths that year. At the time, I tried not to think too deeply about the task, but it was heartbreaking every time.

Every time one of our troops died, we would perform our best impromptu ceremony to pay our respects. At a minimum, a few of us would line up and salute our fallen brother as he was transferred to the aircraft that would carry him home. Sometimes hundreds of us would come out and shed a tear together. Some of the toughest, best trained, Special Forces war-fighters I ever met cried as much as anyone. Any one of us could have been lying in that coffin. This could have been me.

The best I could muster was a prayer and a kiss to the American Flag-adorned metal “transfer case” or body bag. I always tried to save my tears for later, but there’s something about seeing a typically-unemotional trained killer sob that can cause anyone to choke up.

Death was nearly an everyday part of life in Kandahar. We never got used to it and tried our best not to let it affect the mission.

Surprisingly, the threat of our own death was often the least of our worries. We all had issues at home. Some had sick family members; some had relationship or financial problems. Over the course of a few short weeks, four of my brothers’ wives had children. They weren’t allowed to help their wives through the birth, to cut the umbilical chord, hear their child’s first cry, or see their first smile.

I was one of them. My little girl was born on August 26, on what I call the worst and best day of my life. I felt horrible not being able to be there, but was ecstatic to know she was alive and well and that I would see her beautiful face one day. When I finally did, amongst the fanfare of friends, family, and strangers in the middle of a public airport, it made it all worth it.

Justin meeting his daughter for the first time on November 5, 2012. (Courtesy Justin Vélez-Hagan)

Justin meeting his daughter for the first time on November 5, 2012. (Courtesy Justin Vélez-Hagan)

Although that short tour in Afghanistan produced some of the most tragic and beautiful moments of my life, they were but brief, typical moments in the chaos of war. Every one of us has a story of personal battles, victories, enemy attacks, fallen buddies, and an eventual homecoming.

Rest assured, Memorial Day will forever be just a little different for me than before my tour.  I’ll always remember that I was one of the lucky ones able to come home to hold my daughter for the first time. I will forever use the memories of SSgt. Nuanes, and the thousands of others who have died with him, to remind myself how sweet and valuable life really is and how great it is to have the freedom to enjoy it.

Justin Vélez-Hagan is a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, as well as the Executive Director of The National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at JustinV@NPRChamber.org or @JVelezHagan.