By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq -- His commanders gave Airman 1st Class LeeBernard E. Chavis the proud emblem of their squadron -- a blue-and-yellow flag known as a guidon -- because they knew he would rather die than lose it.
The 21-year-old District native carried it from the unit's home base in the hills of Georgia to the sands of Kuwait and onto the streets of Baghdad, where, on Saturday, he was killed by a sniper as he tried to keep civilians away from a suspected roadside bomb.
"The colors have dropped," said Maj. Thomas Miner, commander of the 824th Security Forces Squadron, as he waited to escort Chavis's body onto a C-130 Hercules late Sunday. His lip quivered and his eyes turned glassy. "But we've got to pick them back up."
More than 200 personnel from the squadron and other units stood in near-total blackness on a tarmac and saluted the man who became the unit's first combat fatality in Iraq. The guidon was solemnly carried forward, for the first time by someone else. Then a white, unmarked truck pulled up and the door swung open.
"Reach for remains!" a voice barked.
The sight of the coffin, draped in a large American flag and carried toward the plane by six pallbearers, slowly distorted the faces of 18 members of Chavis's sub-unit, known as a flight, who stood in two neat rows facing the makeshift charnel.
The bottom lip of one young woman in baggy fatigues trembled, and then she began to cry hysterically, her head bobbing up and down.
A chaplain intoned: "There is no greater love that can be displayed than for a person to lay down their life for others."
Another woman started to cry, and soon two men standing nearby joined her.
The chaplain continued: "His love is proven by this ultimate sacrifice."
The legs of several airmen buckled slightly. Within a few minutes, nearly the entire flight was sobbing uncontrollably. The face of Staff Sgt. Kyle Luker turned bright red as tears streamed down his cheeks.
This type of ceremony, known as a patriot detail, is rarely observed by anyone outside the military -- not by the president, not by members of Congress, not by the children or spouse of the fallen service member. The squadron commander allowed a Washington Post reporter embedded with an affiliated unit to witness, but not photograph, the ceremony for Chavis.
He was one of 2,767 members of the U.S. armed forces or employees of the Defense Department to have died so far in the Iraq war, according to the Pentagon.
With distant gunfire punctuating the night as the ceremony approached, Chavis's friends voiced questions about the war and this latest death. One asked: Was it worth the life of a 21-year-old about to propose to his girlfriend? Another wondered aloud: Who among us will die next? And a third asked: Why would God take the life of a devoted Christian who loved to sing gospel and write R&B songs?
"It makes you question almost everything" observed Luker, 27. Still, he said, "we're not here to ask the questions and get them answered. We're here to complete the mission. We'll worry about that stuff when we get home."
Squadron members sat on the dusty tarmac and remembered their friend: How he used to trash-talk while he sprinted on the basketball court. How he planned to join the FBI or the CIA or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives once he left the Air Force.
And how he used to write songs expressing dreams of what he'd do after leaving the bloodshed of Baghdad behind. A few minutes before the coffin arrived, one of his best friends, Airman 1st Class Ro-Derick Taylor, chanted one of the songs that the two men wrote together:
Sometimes I wish that we could go Sometimes to a place where no one knows Sometimes when you and me could be alone Sometimes, sometimes.
Waiting members of Chavis's squadron noted that his aggressive work in the turret of his Humvee had possibly saved their own lives. Luker, a hulking airman with a square jaw, appeared shaken. "We have to be strong," he said. "That's what Chavis would have wanted."
Chavis was born in the District and lived there until he was 6. Then his family moved to Hampton, Va., where he attended high school. His parents recently moved to Reston.
Last year, he did a tour in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, then rotated back to Georgia. There he got into a bit of disciplinary trouble, which his comrades declined to describe. But he begged to redeploy to the war zone, to Baghdad, and his commanders decided to give him a second chance. They gave him the guidon as a sign of their confidence in him.
His unit was attached to the 372nd Military Police Battalion, which trains Iraqi police in western Baghdad. His group frequently moved through the city streets in convoys, bound for training duty. On those trips, Chavis served as lead gunner, manning a .50-caliber machine gun in the turret atop the front Humvee. He was responsible for clearing a path for the rest of his team, laying down fire to provide cover if needed.
As his convoy rumbled through central Baghdad on Saturday just after 2 p.m., squadron members recounted, it came upon an Iraqi police unit that asked for help in dealing with a suspected roadside bomb. The unit began to set up a cordon; Chavis's job was to protect his fellow airmen and prevent civilians from rushing into the potential blast area.
Confused women and children tried to walk into the area, so Chavis rose out of the protection of his turret to try to shoo them away. "Keep away! Danger!" he shouted. Just then, a sniper from a nearby building shot him in the back of the head. He collapsed into the Humvee and died instantly.
On Sunday night, the pallbearers carried the coffin aboard the plane. Then almost the entire flight marched into the aircraft to pay final respects.
But one lanky airman couldn't move. His friends tried to push him forward, but he wouldn't budge. He continued to stare straight ahead as he cried and cried.
Eventually, the mourners left the plane. Then the crew closed the plane's door. It was nearly pitch-black on the tarmac again. But by the winking, distant lights of the capital, it was possible to make out the unit's guidon, fluttering gently in the night sky.