by a former Special Forces Officer
Sometimes tears have the weight of words.
“Thursday, April 27, 2006
ROME, Italy (CNN) – Three Italian soldiers and one Romanian – were killed when a bomb struck their military convoy in Iraq, according to the Italian military.
The defense ministry said the four soldiers were killed on a road southwest of Nasiriyah, the southern city where Italian forces in Iraq are based. A fourth Italian soldier was seriously wounded.
The second vehicle among the convoy of four armored vehicles, it was destroyed in the blast just before 9 a.m. on Thursday.
Twenty-nine Italian troops have now been killed in Iraq while the Romanian soldier was the first from his country to die.”
“The Romanian Soldier was the first from his country to die.”
Those words from the CNN report “first from his country to die” were painful to read. To die in any war is a tragedy, to be the first from your country to die is a distinction no soldier ever wants.
In the acclaimed 2009 HBO movie, Taking Chance, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, played by Kevin Bacon, volunteers to escort the body of a young Lance Corporal, Chance Phelps, who is killed in the line of duty. It is a poignant, beautifully memorable film that captures the full range of emotions that come with the loss of a loved one in battle. In one segment of the film. Lieutenant Colonel Strobl is talking with an elderly veteran, conveying his own sense of guilt for being home with his wife and family and not being “in the fight” with his fellow Marines. The old veteran stops him abruptly, admonishingly, and says he has absolutely no reason to feel guilty. Rather, he charges the colonel with an even more important mission, “You brought Chance home, you’re his witness now, and without a witness, they just disappear.”
As spring approaches, memories drift back to one Easter spent far from home, celebrated with the Romanians in Iraq. It was an experience that left an indelible mark.
The first Romanian soldier killed in Iraq was Corporal Bogdan Hancu, he was 28. His life, and death, became intertwined with mine for a moment in time. Two men, from different countries, and very different worlds, suddenly connected by fate.
Flashback to 2006. I was serving in Bucharest Romania, working with the Romanian Land Forces. It was an interesting, challenging, and dynamic time as they prepared and deployed their forces to Iraq and Afghanistan.
One morning in April, I was called for a meeting with the Chief of the Romanian Land Forces, Lieutenant General Sorin Ioan. General Ioan and I had met on several occasions, he was a tall, imposing figure, and regarded as one of the most experienced and respected generals in the Romanian military. Known for being a “soldier’s, soldier” General Ioan was revered by his troops for his leadership and professionalism.
At the meeting, General Ioan told me he was planning to travel to Iraq to spend Easter with his troops, and with a rare grin, he said he wanted me to travel with him. It was both an honor and an opportunity I could not refuse.
On 20 April, I arrived at the Romanian Airbase at the Otopeni airport just outside Bucharest. Previous trips downrange with the Romanians had been lowkey affairs. This trip however was with the General and his key senior staff and as with any general officer visit, it was a “major muscle movement” for all those involved.
Once all the preparations were completed, we boarded a Romanian C-130 to begin the hours-long flight to Tallil Airbase, Iraq. As the C-130 lumbered skyward at takeoff, I recalled that these C-130s were very old and had been provided as “excess defense articles” to the Romanian military. To the credit of the Romanian Air Force, they had managed to not only keep them airworthy but had the distinction of being only one of a handful of coalition Air Forces that self-deployed their own forces into theater.
After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at Tallil Airbase. Because the Romanian C-130s lacked defensive flares against missiles, the aircraft had come in at high altitude and proceeded to do a rapid cork-screw descent to avoid any possible surface-to-air missiles. This maneuver caught several of the Romanian staff off guard and caused some angst as well as a little airsickness.
Safely on the ground, the official visit by the General began with the customary arrival ceremony. General Ioan addressed his men, praising them and thanking them for their efforts. Standing alongside the senior staff, I was comfortably behind the scenes. Then General Ioan concluded his remarks and called me forward to address the formation. Unexpectedly, I found myself at the podium and in a bit of a panic as I had no prepared remarks. Somehow, I managed to string together enough Romanian phrases thanking the troops for their support. By the confused looks on the soldiers’ faces, my salutations may have been “lost in translation.”
For the next two days, General Ioan met with senior officers at the base and traveled to several other locations in Iraq where Romanian forces were stationed. At each stop, General Ioan personally greeted his soldiers and thanked them. It was a whirlwind tour, as Romanian forces had contingents at several bases throughout Iraq. On one occasion, we boarded two Polish Mi-24 Hind-D attack helicopters to fly to one of those locations. Having entered the Army during the Cold War, it was a bizarre experience. I was sitting inside a Soviet-made helicopter, flown by Polish pilots, huddled shoulder to shoulder with Romanian soldiers.
Of course, the highlight for General Ioan was the opportunity to spend Easter with his troops. Easter for the Romanians is the single most important and celebrated religious event of the year. Orthodox Easter was observed on Sunday, 23 April that year, and in true Romanian fashion, it was celebrated with as much reverence and revelry as could be generated in a warzone.
That evening, mass was celebrated in a tiny chapel the Romanians had built on their compound. In a past visit, a senior Romanian official had criticized the unit commander for building the chapel, feeling it was inappropriate to have such a visible Christian symbol on base. The unit commander however refused to disassemble the makeshift chapel and it remained a permanent fixture.
That night, the Romanians and other Orthodox practicing soldiers at Tallil, poured into the confined space of the chapel.
To participate in their Orthodox Easter service was a deeply spiritual, almost mystical experience. There are no pews or seats in an Orthodox church, as it is believed you stand in the presence of God in his house, so we literally packed in wall to wall. Each of us with a lit candle in hand, with incense wafting through the air, spent the next hour and a half standing and listening to the melodious chants of the Orthodox priest as he conducted the service. At the end of the service, as we stumbled out into the fresh night air, one could not help but be overwhelmed by the sense of spiritual rebirth.
Outside the chapel, the Romanians had assembled a feast for the celebration. Tables were lined with food and delicacies from home, some brought by the Romanian staff. Red-colored Easter eggs lined the table. One of the Romanian staff officers picked up two of the eggs and handed one to me. He explained that it was a tradition to clack the two ends of the eggs together and say “Hristos a înviat!-Christ is risen” and to then respond “Adevărat a înviat!-Indeed he has arisen.” We proceeded to strike our eggs together, with mine cracking and his remaining intact. He smiled and wished me a Happy Easter, having bested the American with the customary cracking of the Easter eggs.
With Easter celebrations ended, the visit was scheduled to conclude in a few more days. General Ioan attended more meetings but nothing major remained on his schedule.
That however was about to change.
On the morning of 27 April, a flurry of activity suddenly interrupted the battlefield update the General was receiving from the staff. The news was grim…there was a fatal attack on a coalition convoy just outside Nasiriyah. A joint patrol of Italian Carabinieri was conducting a routine check of Iraqi police stations when it was hit with a powerful improvised explosive device around 8 am. On the patrol, that morning was a single Romanian Military Policeman, Corporal Hancu. Along with three Italian Carabinieri, Corporal Hancu was killed instantly in the attack.
A Military Policeman from Iasi, Romania, Corporal Hancu, and his unit was attached to the 280th Infantry Battalion stationed alongside the Italians at Camp Mittica. He had been deployed since January and was scheduled to rotate home that July.
Both his parents, Marcel and Carmen Hancu, had served as officers in the Romanian Land Forces. Although immensely proud of their son, they had not encouraged him to pursue a career in the military. It was his decision to follow family tradition and carry on that legacy. His goal was to become an officer like his parents and saw his deployment to Iraq as a necessary stepping stone for his military career.
That previous November, Corporal Hancu had married a young accountant, named Ionela. The couple was living with his grandmother in her apartment. Like many young couples, they hoped to purchase their own place and start a family upon his return home.
The news of Corporal Hancu’s death sent a shock wave through the Romanian command. Romanian soldiers had died before in combat in Afghanistan, but Corporal Hancu’s death was the first combat death in Iraq. It was a painful reminder of the risks the Romanians soldiers faced every day in Iraq and General Ioan was visibly upset by the news. He immediately began the task of recovering and repatriating Corporal Hancu back to Romania.
As the General and his staff were scheduled to fly home in a few days, the Romanian C-130 was already back at Tallil. Corporal Hancu’s body was taken to the base mortuary affairs team which prepared him for the final trip home. In the chapel where the Romanian soldiers had just recently celebrated Easter service, a flag-draped coffin now stood solemnly in the center of the room. A memorial service was arranged and again the tiny chapel confines were packed with soldiers, Romanian and coalition alike.
By this time, I had spent several years in the presence of Romanian soldiers. As a people, Romanians had known great suffering under communism, they are tough and resilient. But on that day, I witnessed many hardened Romanian soldiers break down and weep at the loss of their friend and comrade. Their tears carried more weight than any words.
Sometime after the service, we boarded Corporal Hancu onto the C-130 for the return trip, his coffin, still flag-draped, secured to the ramp of the aircraft.
It was a long and somber flight. In the darkened interior of the aircraft, a single ramp light shone over the coffin, illuminating it in an almost reverent way. General Ioan and his staff all sat in silence, each contemplating and reflecting on the death of Corporal Hancu. General Ioan had an unenviable and daunting task ahead as he would be the first to escort Corporal Hancu off the plane and greet his grieving family.
As the aircraft engines droned on through the night, I wondered about this soldier we were carrying home. I had never met Corporal Hancu, I may have seen him briefly when I addressed the troops, and although I did not know him personally, I had known several Romanian soldiers just like him. As with many of his countrymen, I am sure he was warm and genuinely friendly, with an easy laugh and a love of life. He was a patriot who cared for his family and his country and went willingly to his duty.
I was struck by the impermanence of it all. How strange and poignant, staring at the flag-draped coffin, my life and his death being separated by just a few short feet. Life is for the living, so I steeled my heart and realized that nothing would bring Corporal Hancu back. Only his memory could be saved.
At long last, the C-130 finally touched down at Otopeni Airport. As the aircraft taxied into position, the eerie glow from the nearby hanger lights illuminated the assembled. Among the group, were the mother, father, and family of Corporal Hancu. Standing close was the President of Romania, Traian Basescu, and other senior dignitaries.
When the ramp was lowered, a Romanian honor guard boarded the plane and slowly carried the coffin down the ramp. Led by General Ioan, we marched behind, in solemn procession as the military band played its dirge.
Honors were rendered and General Ioan offered his condolences to the family. The official party, including myself, extended our sympathies, but there was little we could offer to console the stunned and grieving family. After the honors concluded, the family, along with President Basescu and the Romanian senior military representatives, departed toward the hangar for a private meeting.
And just that suddenly, it was over. The rest of us stood there briefly on that dark airfield, processing the events that had just transpired. Then somberly we said our goodbyes as each departed in various directions.
Corporal Bogdan Valerian Hancu was laid to rest in his hometown of Iasi, he was buried with full military honors.
Remembering the fallen is always difficult and conjures up many emotions. The death of Bogdan Hancu for me came to symbolize all that was tragic and regrettable about the war or any war for that matter. Although largely just a bystander in this story, all of us who were present bear the responsibility to not let his memory simply disappear. We are and will remain for the rest of our lives, his witness.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.