Sophie Adelman is a writer based in Washington, D.C.
The way it worked was this.
For a few months, while it was my job, the soldiers' names trickled into my inbox, sometimes three a day, sometimes none for a week. A form email linked to a photo attachment. When I printed their pictures, the images were often blurred and pixelated. I stapled Department of Defense press releases to their paper faces and highlighted their information with a fat blue marker. I copied their names, and ages, and ranks, and hometowns, and locations of death into a document, which I printed. When I had eight names, I sent the folder of pictures and names to our graphics department, which condensed the folders into a tape that was broadcast nationally at the end of our television news program. The tape was played in silence. Afterward, the folders were stored in boxes above my desk and labeled, "Honor Roll." This was the protocol. These were the details of a life, and a death, and a name and the way we honored them.
The soldiers died with none of the Homeric glamour that my liberal arts education had led me to expect from war, in dreamy elegiac poems read in classrooms with dirty windows and linoleum floors. They did not fall for glory or fame. They were lost instead to such unnatural things as "improvised explosive devices," evil mechanical hearts ticking in the dust and waiting for footsteps.
For those months, the pictures I printed were all men. Some were formal, with clenched, upturned jaws in front of an American flag. Others were unplanned portraits, as if it had slipped the soldiers' minds to take a photo in case of death — cellphone shots posted online, digital squares of boys not yet grown, their shirts collarless, faces rounded and pocked with acne. Sometimes they were laughing or holding their girlfriends, who were later cropped out, leaving locks of hair in the corner of the photos. I wondered about the mantles on which these pictures now sit, whether their mothers and grandmothers would clip out the newspaper article with fine nail scissors to be framed, alongside school portraits with blurred backgrounds and bad lighting. I wondered what remnants they would keep — a set of tinny dog tags, a postcard written from a wind-blown tent in an alien land.
I knew very little about these soldiers — with one exception, a Marine who went to high school with an acquaintance. The local newspaper covered his funeral. There was a picture of his fiancée, sitting in a pew of dark suits, blonde head bent, holding a red rose and a crumpled tissue in her hand. A quote from the accompanying online article read: "The couple had registered at Bed Bath and Beyond, asking for simple tools to help begin their life together — vanilla-colored bath towels; a cookbook holder; an ice-cream scoop." He was 22. I cried into my keyboard.
Recently I boarded the metro for home, feeling tired and longing for bed. The tall, ruddy-cheeked crew cut sitting in front of me turned to chat as we rattled beneath the city. He was new, and nervous, and forgot the name of his hometown for a moment when I asked. He wanted to know about good bars in D.C., how to get back to his barracks. Somehow, it seemed like an invitation. When I got up to leave, he walked with me through the sliding doors onto the platform. Wait, I said, you have one stop more to go! He looked at me and lept back on the train.
I didn't catch his name.