Editor’s Note: Capt. Steven Huckleberry, 3-21st Infantry Battalion Fire Support Officer, wrote this account of a tribute held Wednesday in Afghanistan for two soldiers killed in the line of duty July 17, including Pfc. Tyler Springmann of Hartland, Maine.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE ZANGABAD, Afghanistan — A somber mood surrounded Forward Operating Base Zangabad as the sun began to set in the western Afghan sky Wednesday.
Visitors from across the area of operations had made their way here throughout the day.
What is the occasion? Tonight on this frontier of freedom, final respects were to be paid to Gimlet Soldiers 1st Sgt. Kenneth Elwell and Pfc. Tyler Springmann, who recently paid the ultimate price in the defense of liberty.
FOB Zangabad has a perimeter of “HESCOs,” the all-too-familiar ballistic barriers that are found scattered over the Afghan landscape and some guard towers to protect occupants. To the Gimlets of 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, it has come to serve as an oasis of peace and safety amid the violence of Afghanistan’s summer fighting season.
A modest, but majestic memorial altar has been prepared by the Gimlets for the event. A brace of Stryker Combat Vehicles are parked end to end, weapons up and facing out, as if securing the area for all to come and honor the fallen.
The Gimlet Battalion is named for its trademark, the Gimlet. An old-fashioned metal hand tool used by miners of yesteryear to bore holes into rock formations; it allowed them to emplace their explosives to blast away unwanted obstructions. At the front of the site, a large Gimlet standing over 3 feet tall with the words “BORE” boldly etched into it is proudly displayed. To one side of it stands a video screen scrolling photos and a plywood podium, handcrafted and adorned with the battalion crest is on the other.
Finally, center-mass of the memorial are two sets of combat boots, each beneath an M4 carbine, or battle rifle with bayonet, pointing down. Helmets rest atop each weapon’s butt stock and a set of dog tags for each fallen hero hangs from the pistol grip of each weapon. At the base of each weapon rests a picture of each soldier. Behind it all, a U.S. flag is unfurled in the background. Finally, miniature Gimlets, just like those carried by all soldiers within the battalion are propped up at 45-degree angles in front of their photos.
The soldiers of Company A, 3-21st Infantry, stand in formation as visitors make their way to their designated seats.
Two OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters fly low in the distance. They search for insurgents possibly postured to attempt to fire at approaching helicopters. Following numerous passes, a third helicopter appears on the horizon.
Just above the treetops, a lone UH-60 Blackhawk flies in low and fast. It makes an abrupt halt and drops safely into the helicopter landing zone with 10th Mountain Division Command Sergeant Major Chris Greca on board. Everyone is now present, the ceremony can begin.
Panjwa’i District Governor Haji Fazluddin Agha, though not scheduled to, has asked to speak … compelled to offer his condolences. He expressed to everyone present, through a translator, the profound gratitude that all Afghans have for these soldiers who have given their all. He tells everyone how their efforts will serve as an example and inspiration to the Afghan Security Forces. He is followed by the battalion Chaplain (Capt.) Mark Olsen, who moves to the podium for his invocation, followed by the national anthem.
Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Stephen Miller, Company A Commander Capt. John Oliver, and soldiers from across the unit move to the podium to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers.
Soldiers come forth and relate stories of the two fallen warriors.Choked with emotion at times, the speakers compose themselves and finish, driving on as they know Elwell and Springmann would want. Next, the chaplain gives the benediction and then it is time for Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Brown to call the formation to attention for roll call.
He calls off several names of soldiers from within the company formation. Everyone answers, except for two … Elwell and Springmann. Sergeant Major calls their names three times and three times he goes unanswered. He executes an about face, and the honor guard, from the battalion mortar platoon, led by Staff Sgt. Joshua King, renders a three-volley salute. A bugler plays taps from behind the Strykers, the cue for everyone to say their last goodbye.
Second Lt. Andrew Shields takes up a position beside the memorial and plays “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes as everyone marches up to the memorial and renders a final salute to their brothers-in-arms. Within 30 minutes, it’s all over. Everyone has said their goodbyes. Vehicles move out, the helicopter returns to ferry the unit leaders back to their home bases, and the bereaved return to the mission. The Gimlets will drive on, but they will always have a special place in their hearts for their departed brothers … gone, but never forgotten.