A Veteran’s Perspective: How to Honor America’s Fallen Heroes this Memorial Day

In 2009 I was deployed as an Army Reservist in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. To this day, there are times I still wake up at the crack of dawn, smell a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, walk outside for P.T. (physical training), take in the crisp air and instantly flashback to a November morning forever engraved in my head.

The day we heard the news I could not sleep. The agonizing pain, the disbelief and heartache were too much to bear. My eyes were swollen from tears, my heart was filled with sorrow and my mind couldn’t stop racing. 

After tossing and turning all night, I got up and put on my uniform. It was early and pitch-black outside, and I remember using my flashlight to find a fresh uniform packed deep in my duffle bag. I grabbed my weapon, put on headgear and met fellow soldiers to walk across the base.

I saw four to six Army band soldiers warming up when we arrived at the base. I distinctly remember the trumpet player blowing into the muzzle and the trombone player making adjustments. I spotted a few soldiers and friends from my battalion who had flown in from other RC-East bases. They were preparing for what was about to happen. To my left was an enormous empty plane with the rear door open. 

The small group of us who arrived continued to stand there. Then it happened. “Salute arms!”

As I raised my right hand to my right eyebrow the Army band started playing Taps. Then, an M939 five-ton cargo truck drove toward us. My friends I had just spotted were seated facing each other with our friend and comrade, Cpl. Christopher Coffland (“Coff”) in the middle—in a casket with an American flag draped over it. 

I had never experienced debilitating grief like I was feeling in that moment in time.

What was well known about Coff was his resolute patriotism and the depth of his friendships. After an already fulfilling life playing professional football in Europe and studying anthropology by living with Pygmies of Gabon, Africa, Coff’s desire to serve and his selflessness ultimately led him to enlist in the Army Reserves at age of 41 and 11 months, just one month short of the cut off age to enlist. He thought his fascination with working with people would align seamlessly with military intelligence work, and it did.

As the music continued, the soldiers shuffled out of the truck and carried Coff in marching cadence. They walked him into the empty plane slowly, steadily, with pride. I could see tears from the distance. Then they placed him down in the bare plane.

As I looked on, my mind was racing. “There he is. In a casket. By himself,” I thought. “How did this happen? He was here one day. Gone the next. It made no sense.”

We all knew this was war—and this is what happens in war. It could happen to any of us. The brutality and sacrifice of serving had never hit so hard.

From there, I walked onto the plane, took off my headgear and kneeled in front of him. I put my hand over the flag, draped over his casket, and said my goodbyes. Grief and memories from pre-mobilization training rushed through my mind like a movie.

I got up and saluted him, knowing he would be laid to rest with the greatest men who have ever lived. That was the last time I saw him in country. 

To this day, every time I drive into D.C. and pass Arlington National Cemetery, I say hi to Coff under my breath—every time. I visit him when I can, and I know others from my battalion do the same. 

Coff left a lasting impact on my life, and I know he did the same for others. He would say, “Shake off any dust that may accumulate from stagnation of purpose.” That can’t be any truer.

Christopher Coffland was killed by a roadside improvised explosive device on November 13, 2009 in Wardak Province, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. His bravery earned him two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, leaving an indelible mark on those of us who had the honor to serve alongside him.

In his memory, his sister, Lynn Coffland, founded the Catch a Lift Fund, a charity aiding wounded post-9/11 combat veterans. Inspired by Coffland’s mantra, “I’m goin’ catch a lift,” the organization helps veterans regain physical and mental fitness through gym memberships and home equipment.

Coffland and the many other servicemen and women who have died serving in combat since the Revolutionary War died for the freedoms ingrained in our Constitution, including the freedom to give to the causes and communities you care about most.

Their honor, selflessness and dignity should never be taken for granted. If it wasn’t for them, we would not live in the freest country in the world. We should remember their legacies and appreciate the freedoms they fought to defend every single day, not just this Memorial Day.

Kara Ann Hirschfeld is the director of marketing at Philanthropy Roundtable and a former Army Reservist who deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2009.

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