Saturday, April 21, 2012

SGT Dennis Weichel - A Hero For Today

In the last week of March, as I was preparing to return home for two weeks of R&R, our unit received the sad news that Sergeant (then-Specialist) Dennis Weichel was killed in Afghanistan.  SGT Weichel was not a member of our unit, but he had been for nearly four years, and a number of folks within our unit knew him personally.  Hence I was asked by our battalion commander to prepare and conduct a memorial service for SGT Weichel, to provide a means of closure for those in our unit who were friends of his and who would be unable to attend either the memorial ceremony in Afghanistan or the funeral in Rhode Island.

As details surrounding his death emerged, it became clear that this was no ordinary case of a soldier killed in combat or in a training accident - as if even those deaths can be considered "ordinary" for the families so affected.  But in SGT Weichel's case, there was a degree of heroism that is not often found on the battlefield.  You see, when soldiers fight, they do so not out of some great sense of patriotism or with great knowledge of the tactical importance of their battle.  Simply put, they fight for the guy on their right or left.  Their buddies.  And there is no question in my mind that, were it to come to that, all of them would gives their lives for their buddies.  It's happened many times before, and is normally what we award the Medal of Honor for - albeit, usually posthumously.

But SGT Weichel didn't give his life for his buddies on that day.  Not that he wouldn't have, mind you, but circumstances didn't give him that option.  No, on that day he laid down his life to save an 11-year old Afghani girl that he'd probably never met before.

You see, his unit was out conducting some training prior to going on patrol that involved shooting their weapons.  As they were loading up to leave the range, a number of Afghani children began to scurry about collecting the expended brass which could then be melted down.  Some soldiers - Weichel among them - dismounted in order to shoo the kids away and clear a path for the MRAPs - the large, unwieldy mine resistant vehicles that are de rigeur in Afghanistan.  As the vehicles began to move, this young Afghani girl darted forward to grab some brass that lay in the roadway, which put her directly in the path of an oncoming MRAP.  Without hesitation, SGT Weichel ran to get her out of harm's way - and was instead struck by the oncoming vehicle.

Here is the memorial message I gave that evening to honor the memory of SGT Dennis Weichel:


There is never an easy way to accept the finality of losing a friend.  There are very few things in life which hurt, frustrate, or even anger us in this way.  Death is an insult, an aberration, an intrusion into an otherwise mostly happy existence.  We get the news – news we cannot affect, news that permanently changes our community, our unit, or our families.  Suddenly life seems such a fragile and fleeting thing, for death is always shocking in its finality.  And, despite our will to make it otherwise, the pain of death doesn’t go away.

          Dennis Weichel passed away in the prime of his life.  Quite naturally, the ever-present question on our minds is, “Why should a good man like Dennis be taken from us and from his family so abruptly?”  It is a question which I myself ask and which I’m sure many of you are now asking.   But to be quite honest, I’m not sure that those of us on this side of eternity can fully answer it.  But, although we may not always understand God’s ways, we can be sure that He understands ours.  He is present with us in our grief, not as one who stands apart from our mortal world of death and decay, but as a loving Father who knows the deep pain and sorrow of losing a Son.  Though death is an inevitable part of this life here on earth, yet it is not the end.  For those whose faith is in God never truly die, but live on in eternal life.  As we pause and consider our own mortality, there is great hope and comfort to be found in the knowledge that physical death is not the end, but rather the start of a new beginning.

           I never had the privilege of meeting Dennis.  I never served with him, laughed with him or swapped stories with him.  Despite this, I do know some things about him – things that show that he lived a life of honor and integrity.  A life of meaning and purpose.  First, he volunteered to serve his country during a time of war.  He worked and soldiered for what he believed in.  He had already completed one deployment to Iraq, yet he volunteered again to deploy to Afghanistan.  To me, this shows the courage of his convictions, and the depth of his commitment to step up when his country needed him.  Second, he was dedicated to his family.  He loved his three kids, and had planned a special surprise reunion with them that took place just a few months ago.  The love he demonstrated to his girlfriend Ashley and to his three beautiful children show that he knew that even a tough infantry “warrior” can still have a tender heart.  Finally, the manner in which he gave his life shows the greatest love which we on this earth can demonstrate; for make no mistake – his life was not taken from him, but he willingly sacrificed it to save the life of a child.  In the book of John, chapter 15, verse 13, Jesus himself says this, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  Dennis exemplified the noblest ideals of love that day.  And while his sacrifice saddens us – for it removes his physical presence from among us – yet at the same time it provides us with something to celebrate.  For Dennis left his mark on this world – in the hearts of his friends gathered here today, in his family and children at home, and especially in the life of a young child in a foreign land whose life was spared that day.

There is a poem, written by Laurence Binyon during the First World War, that aptly depicts the sacrifices of the young men and women who have fallen on the battlefield ever since.  It’s titled “For the Fallen.”  I would like to read the last few stanzas of that poem to you now:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

In a few hours, Taps will sound its mournful notes over this camp.  When it does, pause for a moment and remember Specialist Dennis Weichel.  Remember the life that he lived, remember the love that he shared, and remember the sacrifices he made.  Remember, and give thanks that we were able to share that life with him.  Give thanks that we have such men such as Dennis who serve our country during times of need.  Give thanks that he rests now, cradled in the arms of a just and loving God.

6 comments:

MMC said...

A beautiful memorial, Padre.

habap said...

Quit edit. Second to last sentence. Mistyped first name.

Dave Harvey said...

Thanks - done.

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