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May 28, 2005

Memorial Day 2005.

The Milblog world is full of great posts this weekend. When casting about for what I was going to do for Memorial Day, everywhere I looked, other people had already done it and generally better than I ever would. These two posts will stay up all weekend, anything new will be below - and the second post will have links to other bloggers stuff.

Since active operations continue, and my email box pings daily with several DoD Casualty notifications, I'm going to do what I did last year. Give you a glimpse into what happens behind those casualty notices.

With the permission of my old Army buddy Tony Cerri, and his daughter Sarah, who had to bury her essentially brand new husband, 2LT Leonard Cowherd.

*This* is what Memorial Day is about. Especially as long as my email inbox pings with casualty notifications. Remember - this was written last year.

This is my Memorial Day post. It's the only post up - until the final chapter comes in. It's long. Just the story of 2lt Leonard Cowherd, Sarah Cerri Cowherd, and the Cowherd and Cerri families, as seen through the eyes of my Scorpion brother-in-arms, Tony Cerri. This is a great country. And this is just one proof. This is the price of freedom, hope, and the fight for the future. As has been asked before - where do we find such men? Answer: look around you - they are everywhere. You just don't notice them. It is not my intent to exalt 2lt Cowherd above other casualties of this or any war. Just to tell the story.

Do not stand by my grave and weep ...
I am not there;
I do not sleep.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds circling in flight.
Do not stand by my grave and cry ...
I am not there.
I did not die.
-- Royster

I am the great-grandson of a soldier of the Civil War.
I am the grandson of a soldier of the Great War.
I am the son of a soldier of Korea, and Vietnam.
I was a "Brat".
I was a soldier.
I am still a soldier, albeit in the Retired Reserve.

In a different life, now seemingly long ago and far away, I answered a ringing doorbell. I opened the door, and there stood the Western Union man. I was 12. I knew this was Not Good. Mom came up. She saw the Western Union man. She froze. The Western Union man looked miserable. I took the offered envelope. Opened it. Mom was a statue, frozen in her own private hell. The Western Union man was fidgety, and downcast.

I opened the envelope. Read it out loud.

"The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your servicemember, LTC Timothy H. Donovan was wounded in combat in the Republic of Vietnam.

He was shot while flying in a helicopter. The a/c did not crash or burn."

That's it. Dad was wounded, not dead. Mom could breathe again. The Western Union guy was all smiles.

All smiles. And that didn't strike any of us as a Bad Thing. Because we were giddy, too.

Well, over 800 times [now 1600. ed] since the crossing of the LD for OIF, teams of officers have made visits like that one.

Only there were no giddy smiles of relief.

Just recently, they made one of those visits to the home of one of my Army buddies, whose daughter's husband had just been killed in Iraq.

Since the Founding of the Republic, some form of this process has played out 2,621,552 times, give or take.

America's Wars Total (Less conflicts after Gulf War 1)
Military service during war 42,348,460
Battle deaths 651,008
Other deaths in service (theater) 13,998
Other deaths in service (nontheater) 525,256
Nonmortal woundings 1,431,290

Joseph Stalin observed: "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic."

Those are the statistics. Read now the story of one man, and his family and friends - and the impact of the death of one man, a soldier, Leonard Cowherd, Second Lieutenant, Armor, United States Army.

This is the story of a military family dealing with the death of a soldier. This is the story of bravery, fortitude, family, love. It is a story that plays out across all the services. It's real, it's true. It happened. And will happen again, as long as warriors have to man the ramparts against the darkness.

I have fought a good fight
I have finished my course
I have kept the faith.
-- 2 Timothy 4:7
We will carry the torch for you, Leonard.

It's a long post - this makes for good background music: Barber's Adagio (right click, open in a new window)

So, let it begin (and yes, I have the family's permission to share this with you):

Friends---below are a series of emails,edited only to delete all the headings, from my good friend LTC(R) Tony Cerri...His son in law 2LT Leonard Cowherd was killed last week in Iraq. Leonard's death puts a face on the growing list of young men killed in Iraq. I think you will find these emails will touch your hearts....


The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

2nd Lt. Leonard M. Cowherd, 22, of Culpeper, Va., died May 16 in Karbala, Iraq, when he received sniper and rocket propelled grenade fire while securing a building near the Mukhayam Mosque. Cowherd was assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Division, Friedberg, Germany.

1st Platoon, C 1/37 Armor. 2LT Cowherd stands in front of the tank on the right.

My son-in-law, 2LT Cowherd, was killed this morning in Iraq. He is the armor soldier currently being referred to in the news. Platoon Leader. USMA class of '03.

My daughter has been staying with us since Leonard deployed. I was with her when the car pulled in the driveway and she was notified by the team from Ft Eustis tonight. Surreal is not the word.

You can imagine that this is a numbing time for us.

We expect an onslaught of details and issues tomorrow. I will be at home until such time as we are settled.

I know you'll ask, "Is there anything I can do?" I appreciate and I will not hesitate to call should something arise.
Sorry it has been so long since I've sent an update. Things have been busy. I also apologize that what will follow has the shape and sound of an FAQ and that's not the intent. However, I want to tell you what's going on and where we are and answer your questions; that just leads me to a particular kind of format. It's late and it's been a long day I apologize for grammar errors.

First - how are we?
We are as fine as can be expected. I realize that sounds trite and rote.
However, it is heartfelt and rings true while living it. I have come to understand that we are on a journey of stages and phases and, all things considered, we are doing fine. We have gone through the initial moments of absolute shock, horror, disbelief, rage, and soul emptying sorrow. I classify the next large chunk of time as numbness.

Finally, and currently, we are in emotional, and sometimes physical, exhaustion. And all are exactly right. The initial notification and emotions are something I wish on no one. The numbness and exhaustion are welcome.

They allow us to get on with things and deal with the realities.

We are making decisions. There has been some degree of normalness return. There has even been some laughter and lightness in the house. We are fine.

How is Sarah?
My daughter is strong and has proven to be a warrior's wife but I ache for her. No one should be a war-widow at 23. While Beth and I experience ups and downs, she is more so. If we are at a 7, she is at an 8. If we are at a 3, she is at a 2. She comforts others as she is being comforted.

Although she's a brat, she did her serious growing up years right here. She has a large circle of friends and family that have reached out to her. Further, and to digress a moment, she attended the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership and Leonard attended the United States Military Academy. Both institutions forge strong relationships amongst their graduates. Both nstitution's graduates have a respect and place in their hearts for their owns spouse. Sarah has had her hand held by people literally around the world; generals, lieutenants, civilians, male, female, serving, retired, her friends, Leonard's friends, their friends. She obviously grieves. She is proud of what her husband was doing and believed in. She wishes he had done something else. She understands he wouldn't have been Leonard if he had. Further, she has a special friend - Leonard's identical twin brother Charles. You've read and heard about twins. If my experience is normal, everything you've ever heard about twins is right.

Sarah, Leonard, and Charles were always the three musketeers. We kidded Sarah that she was actually getting two husbands. And she reveled in it. Charles is not and has never been Leonard for Sarah - he is Leonard's other half as Sarah was Leonard's other half for Charles. They are both missing something significant...and together they form a whole of sorts.

Charles is spending time with us and I couldn't ask for anything better for the two of them. Sarah is fine.

How is Leonard's family?
About the same as we...but no one should ever have to bury a child. Do NOT take that wrong. They are incredibly proud of their son and everything he believed in and stood for. We spent last night together after they drove down from Culpepper.

We celebrated Leonard's life.

There were no second guessings, misgivings, or hesitation. They miss their son and grieve for him and are going through the same stages as the Cerri's but are strong in their faith and the certainty that Leonard was doing what was important to him. They are comforted by the principles of a small town and a close knit family. Their 3 other children and an extended family are around them and providing both solace and support. I suspect they'd have no problem reading that I say they are as fine as can be expected.

Is there anything you can do?

Sarah, Charles and I have discussed this. We need nothing. We appreciate everything. However, if you want to 'do' something we have two requests. First - somewhere in your 6-degree circle of friends and family find a deployed soldier, sailor, airman, or marine. Talk to them. Send them an e-mail, a letter, or package. Tell them you're there. Tell them you care.

It doesn't have to be Iraq or Afghanistan.

We have folks around the world that are doing our business. Just reach out to one of them. One of Leonard's biggest concerns was the soldiers in his platoon who received no mail or support from folks outside the company. Our warriors shouldn't have this problem. Second - stand a little stiller, stand a little straighter the next time you hear the National Anthem. There are generations of warriors that have made that possible.

What happened?

Leonard caught a sniper's round in the chest. He did not suffer. As far as we know at this time, his platoon and company had been engaged in relatively heavy combat all day long in Karbala. Leonard died at around 1720 Iraq time on Sunday. We do not know if he was off his tank or if it happened while he was mounted. During the same period two other soldiers were wounded although they do not appear to have been with Leonard's platoon. Again, as far as we've been able to determine, the unit returned fire and carried the field. Some reports indicate they killed the sniper.

When will his body be returned?
We were notified that his remains were due to arrive in Dover today. It will take some 24 to 36 hours for the Army to finishing positive identification and other details at which time the remains will be released.

What are the plans?
At this point we are planning on a civilian ceremony in Culpepper, VA on Saturday with eventual internment at Arlington. The Culpepper ceremony will be in Saint Stephens Episcopal Church at 1400. Please note - this is a small church in a Middle America with ~100 seats. This is where Leonard grew up and he is a hometown hero. PLEASE feel welcome if you would like to attend but be prepared to stand outside, or in an aisle, or in a tent. The Arlington ceremony is yet to be nailed down. I will notify all when details are known.

What about flowers and such?
Sarah and Charles are still discussing this and are narrowing the field. Flowers already fill our house (and our thanks). They are discussing everything from donations to the USO (if you've ever deployed - you understand. Leonard constantly talked about how well the USO took care of him.), to establishing a history award at Leonard's high school (history was his thing, he was good at it, he believed in it), to establishing a scholarship to attend summer camp (Leonard was a camp counselor for many years and strongly believed that every child should be able to attend). Give them some time and they will sort it out.

How has the Army treated Sarah?
Wonderful. Dignified. Caring. You may know that I am retired Army. I always believed that the Army took care of its own. I now know it is true. We are in Yorktown but the unit is in Germany. Regardless, the Army has wrapped its arms around Sarah as only the military can do. The notification occurred as you've seen it in the movies or read about it.

The car pulled up in the drive way and two officers came down the walk. They were professional and Sarah-oriented. They had a horrible message but delivered it in a manner worthy of emulation and admiration. Those poor guys. The causality assistance officer is equally squared away and Sarah-oriented. He will be with her till all the details are finished. He's done his homework and has thus far been able to answer everything we've asked up to the point it is known. Again, the poor soul. He has drawn one of the most awful details any soldier could ever dream of. He has deported himself well and I couldn't ask for better. The Army will carry many, if not most, of the funeral and interment expenses. Sarah will continue to receive full military benefits. Some of the next details might raise an eyebrow or two but they are available on many web sites and I share them so you may understand. She was given a check today for $12K. This benefit is not a quantification of the value of a soldiers life. It is the Army's way of providing immediate help to a spouse. Sarah is young and living with us. However, if she was a Private's wife, on her own, or with children, the fund would be a god-send of help. She will receive the Serviceman's Group Life Insurance (SGLI) payment. She will not be wealthy but she will have time to think and plan. We have received offers of help from General Officers to Lieutenant friends. From local, to Korea, to Germany, to West Point, to points around America. The Army is closing ranks to take care of my daughter. I am proud and grateful.

They both went to military schools. What's going on there? Leonard is the first USMA '03 grad to die in combat. I'll just have to report that the Corps had a moment of silence and his company is holding a military memorial. The emotions behind these ceremonies can not be put in an e-mail. If you're curious, ask me when I get back or ask a grad. They are soul searing and will stay will the Corps forever. Sarah is the first VWIL grad to experience this - ever. Her military friends around the world have reached out and her civilian friends as well.

The Commandant and the Corps have been very much a part of all this.

When am I coming back to work?
I know, I know, I know - you didn't ask and every body and their brother has said to take the time I need. I will. However, I need to get on with things as well. As of this point, it looks like Monday next is as good day to shoot for as any. I'm sure I'll need to take some periodic time off in the upcoming weeks to help Sarah and the Cowherd's settle things but they'll taper off with time.

OK y'all...LONG e-mail and it's late and I need to hit the sack. However, this is what I know as of the moment and wanted to share. I'll keep you posted.
All that follow is beside the point above and perhaps more for my sake than yours. However, I know friends have questions and I'll try to answer as best I can. I'll move on to what I'm sure is the number one question on your mind - how was the memorial in Culpeper?

I can't really explain this weekend without explaining a little about Culpeper. This is a place that still has a thriving Main Street. This is a place where banks still occupy Main Street corners with big stone buildings. This is a place where the magnolias are taller than the houses they shade.

A.P Hill is a local boy done good and very much alive in conversation and pride. Hooker, Stewart, and Davis are contemporaries that inspire with their prowess and ideals of loyalty and devotion to higher calling.

Main Street on Friday night is packed with cars...because that's what you do in a town like Culpeper on Friday night. It's a place where you stop your car in the middle of a country lane to help a turtle across the road and the 30ish lady behind you rolls down her window to tell you thanks. BTW - Yes I did and yes she did.

It's a place where the owners and workers of floral shops, bed and breakfasts, hotels, funeral homes, media recognize values and heroes. It's a place where a Virgie Atkins comes out from behind the counter to give your wife a hug and sit through some sobs with her.

Everybody knows everyone and family reputation is borne as a matter of honor through the generations. It's a place two 9/11 flight attendants called home; a home with the values of the vast majority of the American land mass. The limos taking us to the church didn't fly funeral flags - they flew American flags. People noted and took as a good sign a hawk circling the steeple.

The ceremony was a town event; hero falls in battle. The mayor (ex-Special Forces) had American flags lining Main Street a la Fourth of July. The Governor had the state flag at half mast for the week. People just flat bent over backwards to honor Leonard's name and his country's cause and his service.

I really don't know how many hundred people attended but the local paper's Saturday morning edition headline described the preparations...and the fact that they really weren't sure if the plan to run sound and video to the outside tents was going to work.

The afternoon was Southern-heat still but many attended the almost two-hour Episcopal ceremony standing in tents under the church's massive shade trees... as attendants offered bottled ice water. These men and women were in addition to the full church and congregation hall. I know I speak for the Cowherd's and the Cerri's all when I say the support at the ceremony was truly infectious.

This was tragedy and celebration writ large for those who knew Leonard - child to man, West Point Cadet to Armor Platoon Leader, single to married.

The minister and speakers distinguished themselves with moving acknowledgment of Leonard the man, the officer, the brother, and... the husband.

Military senior was General (Ret) McCaffrey and his remarks would have made Leonard happy. However, perhaps most significant were two 82nd Airborne PFC's in attendance. No one knew them and they left before we could talk to them - they just attended. There were dozens of Lieutenant's in attendance; from Korea, and Colorado, and Italy, and New Mexico, and Alabama, and North Carolina, and Georgia, and Kansas, and Texas, and Florida, and other points around the US and the world. The West Point and Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership Corps' alumni were present en masse.

And it was a righteous salve. Acceptance, pride, and promise filled us all as we departed the church.

And afterward? Well, the Lieutenants, and the Cowherd's, and the Cerri's
and et al went to a pub in downtown Culpeper. Amidst the open beams, the cigarette smell, and the dim lighting two guys with electrified acoustic guitars played songs like Tennessee Waltz, and Take Me Home to West Virginia and Whiskey for My Men and Beer for My Horses. We drank, and talked, and laughed, and yes - even danced a little. If you don't understand, what can I say.... We were there to tell Leonard-stories and family-stories and military-stories. And we cried and held each other when the need arose. And I looked those family members and Lieutenants in the eye and saw our nation's future - selfless, capable, proud, and determined.

And how is Sarah?

It is difficult to believe this is my daughter. 'Grace under fire' is a tired old cliché but I now certainly know its meaning. One of her VWIL buds paid her a compliment today that I hope you'll understand even a little as it says so much. She said, "Sarah, you are certainly a Mary Baldwin girl." Sarah has uncertain times ahead but this young woman, this warriors-wife has acted with a dignity and purpose that is surely based on love. She leaned back on my chest today during the viewing and whispered through her tears,

"Dad, I'm so proud of Leonard."

And one can't talk of Sarah without talking of Leonard's twin - Charles.

He is Sarah's strength and I think vice versa as well. The two of them have
brought us to a point where laughter is OK again. His memorial service remark about missing 'twin time' was telling but well balanced by not having to worry about Leonard. He, like the rest of us, is moving on.

And the Cerri's and the Cowherd's?

Frankly - beat. Thank God for sleep; the great elixir of life. Each day gets a little better. We have miles to go in this run but we know we're not alone and we're getting the hang of it. We are OK. Everyone has their own moments but mine happened when one of Leonard's friends slipped a CD in the funeral home's sound system today. Had two songs - The West Point Alma Mater and The Corps. Suddenly, there were thousands and thousands of the Long Grey Line filling that room. Generations of soldiers and leaders were striving to encourage and support. Those songs were written for and about Leonard.

A final observation and I'll be done. 5 hours ago it had been a week since that notification team walked down our path. Today was the most emotional since it was the day chosen for close family to actually visit with Leonard. As Beth and I were headed to the funeral home I stopped in a 7-11 for some water. Standing at the check out line I saw a picture that froze me in my tracks; three helmet-topped M16s with a soldier saluting. In this week, in this time - that picture could only come from one place on earth and for one thing only; it was the military memorial held by Leonard's unit. So many emotions ran through me. Those services are unlike anything else. Even now I'm getting a little empty space as I imagine what the Roll Call sounded like... If you've participated, you understand. If you haven't, imagine the simplest and most dignified ceremony specifically designed for soldiers to honor their fallen. It can be done anywhere but where ever it's done takes on the feel of Saint Patrick's Cathedral.


I'd told the Cowherd family that this tradition would be upheld and now I had graphic proof. Point in passing, courtesy of a phone call from BG Hertling, the 1st AD ADC, tonight I know that this memorial in Iraq was on going within hours of the Culpeper service and that it had been attended by near a thousand. A young Specialist had spoken about 'his' Lieutenant. Imagine that Specialist's moxie and caring to address those hundreds of soldiers and you understand the honor this was for Sarah and Leonard's parents.

I looked closer and saw the picture was on the front page of the NY Times. This wasn't the Culpeper daily or the Richmond times. This was one of the most respected, global newspapers on earth. Hmm... I picked up a copy and read it. I found quotes by Leonard's Battalion Commander describing the action wherein Leonard had been killed and the completion of that action in a satisfying manner. I tucked a copy under my arm and checked out.

Viewings can be rough and this one was against my better judgment but Sarah can be hard headed... and was right. My daughter's final moments with the husband she hadn't seen in 5 months and with whom she'd only lived for 5 months ended sweet. She and Leonard's mother and Leonard's twin brother and all the rest of the extended families stayed long enough to get through all the emotions. Sarah, the Cowherd's and Beth and I were all truly the better for this final visit. But what about the NY Times?

About half-way through the viewing I went out to the car and brought the paper in. There, in that room, with Leonard with us, we made a connection with not only his unit and their actions but with the entire world. We were one. There was closure. Information from the war zone to a funeral home in rural VA and shared around the world. The story about the fight was just as important, if not more so, than the picture itself. I could physically see the Cowherd's relax just a little bit.

And as this first week was drawing to a close, one of Leonard's closest West Point friends came up to Mr. Cowherd and said, "Leonard will always be a hero." And so he will...

Tony Cerri

Leonard will be buried on Wednesday at 1100 at Arlingon National

Now is the time at Castle Argghhh! when we dance. In Memoriam, to all the fallen of the Armed Forces and our Allies, in all our conflicts.

They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them . .
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun,
And in the morning,
We will remember them!
-- Lawrence Binyon



The funeral is covered in the post below this. I'll be linking to other blogger's efforts at the bottom of that post.

I have no idea how many links this post will get - but please, if this post and the one below only move you to make hateful or political comments, save it for another time, and another post. I won't be impressed with your brave political commentary, and I'll simply delete it. This isn't for the discussion of the war. This is about Memorial Day. Sad enough I feel the need to add this paragraph, but the chances are pretty good that Tony and Sarah and others will be here this weekend.

John | Permalink | Comments (22) | Something for the Soul
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