It hits you. It's not something you can really put into words, but when you come walking up to the III Corps and Fort Hood Remembrance Display sprawled across solemnly on the Sadowski Parade Field on Fort Hood, you realize that someone is no longer in those boots.
As a retiree, I've been to more than my share of military memorials and funerals; too many, in fact. In Iraq, at Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, we lost contractors, our Iraqi counterparts and of course, U.S. military personnel.
There too, we had memorial services for Todd Cornell and Paul Karpowich, just a few weeks apart; fellow military advisers killed while trying to build the Iraqi Army. Cornell was killed in Fallujah just a few days after I left Camp Fallujah and headed home for R&R. He died fighting with the Iraqi troops he was training. Karpowich was killed in Mosul, preparing for operations with his Iraqi counterpart. A suicide bomber killed "Karp."
I didn't know these guys. The last time I had seen Cornell was at Camp Taji. I was showing ABC News how the training effort was going and one of our colonels was trying to do an interview and off to the side, Cornell and his Iraqi soldiers were farting, cracking jokes and doing their best to annoy the colonel. I was laughing too, so it was hard for me to look at them and tell them to keep it down. I did my best to play the hard ass, but I kept cracking up, smirking as they continued to disrupt the interview. That was the last time I saw him.
When I was home on leave I heard that we had a casualty and I asked who it was. The name didn't sound familiar, so I asked for a picture. I couldn't believe it. Just a few weeks earlier, Cornell was grab-assing with his men. Now I was at home, safe and sound for Thanksgiving and the lives of his family and friends were forever changed.
Fast forward 17 years and I'm at Fort Hood looking at all these empty boots. The voids that are left when these folks die is represented by these boots. They are never forgotten, especially when they are your blood. I've lost good friends over the years, but you don't have to personally know someone to be moved by something like this. The Remembrance Display serves as a reminder; a painful, physical reminder that we should never forget the sacrifices of those who died in service to their country.
If you're in the Killeen area between July 1-6, make it a point to stop by the Sadowski Parade Field and visit the annual III Corps and Fort Hood Remembrance Display which honors the sacrifices of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who have died since Sept. 11, 2001. It is a somber and sobering reminder that 7,700 people lost their lives since 9/11 in service to their nation.
Since 2014, III Corps and Fort Hood have placed a combat boot honoring a fallen service member on the parade field. The boot contains an American flag and a name badge that has a picture of the fallen hero. A tag is attached to each boot.
Remember, every boot on that parade field represents a very human story. It's our job to ensure we keep their stories alive. We owe them that.
Steve Alvarez is the author of Selling War A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine published by Potomac Books. Photos by Steve Alvarez.