The last Monday of May in the US, we remember those who have died in service to our country. This particular tradition as a federal holiday dates back to the Civil War, but the practice of honoring warriors is ancient. Roman Soldiers (and Romans in general) embraced the value of pietas (virtue or duty to country), and it was up to surviving soldiers of a battle to honor the fallen by cremating them and bringing their ashes back home. Today those traditions carry on with perhaps more pomp and circumstance than the Romans, but the feelings they evoke remain the same: Duty, Honor, Country.
For those who have never served it might be difficult to understand why the military does things the way they do. As someone who has spent some time in uniform, we are sometimes called archaic and barbaric in the same breath as cutting-edge and humanitarian. That duality certainly exists, and modern warriors (soldiers, marines, airmen, seaman, and coastguardsmen) are no plaster saints to be propped up on a pedestal. Every action we take is scrutinized, politicized, and dissected. But still we exist, outlasting every political party with a sense of duty to the country and constitution alone. That duty creates a sense of the familial with those who serve next to you, and so it cuts deep when a fellow brother or sister dies.
America will honor the fallen this 2017 Memorial Day in a multitude of ways to include parades, flags, bar-b-ques, speeches, and monuments. While these activities are a part of the cultural landscape of how we celebrate as a nation, the traditions carried on by those currently serving and veterans can be quite a bit more solemn. One such tradition some of you may have had the honor of attending is the Last Roll Call.
Like most things military, the Last Roll Call is institutionalized into the fabric of what it means to be a warrior, covered in the US Army under Field Manual (FM) 7-21.13. The Battle Field Cross is one such symbol of this ceremony; the boots representing the final march, the upside down rifle symbolizing the end of action, and the helmet and ID tags on top of the rifle remembering who they were. The ceremony itself can be short and precise like most military actions, but is also one of the longest days of those who served in a unit with them.
The service starts like most funerals with an invocation and tributes. The religious aspects are determined by the practices of the deceased and there may or may not be singing. The Last Roll Call is one part of the ceremony that differs. Traditionally the First Sergeant or other designated person of the company or unit calls those present to accountability starting alphabetically. It will usually go something like this.*
“Here First Sergeant.”
“Here first Sergeant.”
“Sergeant Kathy England.”
“Sergeant Kathy Pauline England!”
Each time the First Sergeant says the deceased’s name they raise their voice. The room is silent, their full name weighing like a mountain on your shoulders as each person in the room takes on the duty of memorializing the fallen. At this point the First Sergeant will conduct an about face toward the commander.
“Sergeant England missing from roll call.”
“Strike her from the rolls,” the commander will reply, returning the salute.
Nearby seven soldiers with three blank rounds loaded into their rifles will fire three volleys. Those who have served will feel the shots differently than those who have not. The retort is jarring, and those familiar with rifles will smell the hot CLP (cleaner, lubricant, & protectant) coming off the guns and hear the brass tinkling on the ground. It is familiar and comforting in some ways, bitter and devastating in others.
Then the taps play, signaling that their time of duty is over and they can now rest easy.
I plan on enjoying time with family this memorial day, visiting a few memorials and leaving a coin on a grave marker (another tradition). I hope all of you will enjoy your time with family and friends as well, all while keeping in mind the sacrifice and service of your fellow Americans.
(*Note: I have changed names, any resemblance to those living or dead is unintentional)
Final Note: Not all battles end after a deployment, and the suicide rate for veterans eclipses the national average. If you or a loved one has thoughts of self-harm or suicide I encourage you to seek help. The Veterans Crisis Line and Suicide Prevention Lifeline take seconds to access.
About the Author: Mathew Bumbalough is a native-born Hoosier from Richmond Indiana; the son of Jim and Jane and the second oldest of ten children in a warm and loving family. He was a sophomore in high school on 9/11 and joined the Army as soon as he was able after graduation. For 6 years in the Army, he served as a Korean Linguist and has been all over globe, serving the bulk of his time in South Korea. After the military he continued his career overseas as an educator and came to Bloomington with his wife Yukari to pursue a PhD in Language Education at Indiana University in 2013, graduating in 2016. He now works as an advisor and sometimes instructor at IU, volunteers for outreach initiatives for the Monroe County Democratic Party, and enjoys all the beautiful people and nature Southern Indiana has to offer.