Story by Sgt. Marcus Fichtl
CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait - It's the summer of 2011 and Sgt. Gordon Zietlow, a health care specialist then with the 10th Mountain Division, was on his way home for two weeks of rest and recuperation leave when Spc. Nicholas "Bernie" Bernier, a junior medic and Zietlow's replacement, was eager to get "on the line" and do his job, but by the time Zietlow returned, Bernier was dead, shot while manning a M240B machine gun defending his outpost from a Taliban attack.
"It could have been me," said Zietlow, who is now assigned to the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. "There are a lot of guys who have that story."
After twelve years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, 6,800 service members have given their lives.
There are a lot of stories, a lot of missing faces.
It's why for three years now that Camp Buehring, Kuwait, and the United Service Organizations light the field with lights, cover the walls with faces and help remember fallen service members with a 5k Memorial Day Run and Vigil.
The run is a zigzagging course through Camp Buehring complete with helicopter fly overs and an escorting convoy of humvees, and finally ends in an open desert field illuminated by 6,800 LED light filled paper bags.
"We wanted to create a 5k that was a little different, somber but reflective, commemorative, and hopefully a moment of healing," Said Tiffany Banks, USO Director, Camp Buehring.
And for Zietlow, a Marion, Wisconsin, native, who heals a little each day playing and teaching guitar at the USO, was asked by the USO staff to perform Amazing Grace, the centerpiece of the events vigil.
"I grew up singing in the Catholic church as a canter, with grandpa, grandma, dad, my brothers, and my aunts singing along side me," said Zietlow. "So the song has always been with me, but I never really took the time to really study and understand the lyrics. I just sang the piece and followed the hymnal, but out here having the opportunity to learn the song was really special."
Zietlow came to a crossroads on how the sing the song, with or without using the guitar he was known for in the USO, until he had a conversation with his wife and she said, "Sing it like it was sung 200 years ago."
And Zietlow knew what he had to do.
"I didn't want to make it my own," he said. "It was about them and their sacrifice and it was about how the lyrics they wrote transcend time, how the lyrics still stand today,"
As Zietlow prepared his song, volunteers prepared the luminaries and vigil.
To build the luminaries on Camp Buehring took time and dedication as 6,800 bags needed to be filled with sand, 6,800 bags needed have an LED light and 6800 bags needed to be placed.
In spite of the heat and the sandstorms, during the laying of the
luminaries, Banks witnessed a cleansing process for her military volunteers.
"The entire process of the planning, the preparing and the setting of the bags and then lighting them that evening and seeing the final product is an opportunity to heal," said Banks. "You see them go through the all elements of the process of healing throughout the project."
For Banks and the USO, they simply want to show the service members that people care about them.
"There are people who care about the service provided from Soldiers, wounded Soldiers, their families, and those who passed," said Banks. "Your name won't be forgotten."
The runners reached the end point, flanked by tanks and humvees to the side, and helicopters above.
Zietlow took the stage with 6,800 fallen souls behind him and hundreds of Soldiers before him; he clutched the microphone, fighting tears as he sings the first line, the wall next to him flashing the faces of the fallen.
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound."
For a few minutes it was nothing but Zietlow channeling his thoughts, his pain.
It was his healing.
"It's helped me become inspired and motivated to live and earn this freedom we have," said Zietlow. "A freedom definitely earned by the sacrifices of so many brave men and women."