FORT KENT, Maine — Sam Canders knows he’s one of the lucky ones.

The 33-year-old Washburn native serves as a C-130 transport pilot with the Air National Guard, deploying for 45 days at a time at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

“Active duty personnel with the Air Force are probably [on the Bagram base] for six months,” Canders said earlier this week. “Members of the Army will be [there] for almost 15 months.”

Canders was e-mailing from his home in Rhode Island and expects to return to Afghanistan next month.

Located about 4,800 feet above sea level in Afghanistan’s mountainous northeast, Bagram’s runways serve as a major hub for military air traffic moving throughout that country.

More than 12,000 service men, women and civilian contractors live on the base, and from the base’s main street known as Disney Drive to the flight line, it’s as active day or night as any small city — with one somber exception.

To those living at Bagram, Canders said, the loud speaker that makes announcements from the mundane to the critical is known as “the giant voice.”

When it speaks, he adds, everyone listens; perhaps no more so than when they hear, “There will be a fallen comrade ceremony in 10 minutes.”

From that moment on, members of every branch of the armed services, contractors and civilians stop what they are doing — all 12,000 of them.

The booming message brings all work to a standstill. Canders and his crew, even when preparing one of the C-130s for flight, put down their tools.

“We finish what we are doing in the cockpit and walk back to the loadmasters,” he said, recalling his experiences while stationed at the base in summer 2008. “Outside, the crew chief shuts down the ground power unit and everyone assembles under the giant wing of the transport, taking advantage of the shade as we look over the ramp towards a parked C-17.”

On the flight line, Canders said, an organized series of formations will form near that parked military transport with a column of two lines of soldiers extending from the tail of the plane to the edge of the ramp.

“All air traffic stops,” Canders said. “There will be no movement on the airfield, there will be no takeoffs or landings.”

In honor of the fallen, for Bagram Air Base, the war has paused.

“From past experience I can imagine what the sight would be along Disney Drive,” Canders said. “Vehicle and pedestrian traffic stops, all nonessential personnel line the street in their duty uniforms and stand in silence as a slow procession of vehicles leave the base hospital and drive the mile and a half to the flight line.”

As the procession moves toward the flight line, Canders said, bagpipes are heard in the distance.

On this day, he said, after the procession arrives at the transport plane, a detail unloads each of the trucks, and slowly, in perfect unison, five flag-draped coffins are carried between the columns of soldiers toward the cargo plane, an American flag held high and leading the way.

Canders said the rhythmic sound of the boots as the soldiers march in unison can be heard across the ramp as they disappear into the cargo hold.

For an additional moment, Canders and his fellow airmen remain under the wing, standing in silence.

“Eventually, we disperse,” he said. “The loadmasters head to the back of the plane and we head to the cockpit and continue our preflight preparations.”

From his seat in the plane’s nose, Canders watches the giant C-17 transport with its cargo of five fallen comrades, taxi into position for takeoff.

“It accelerates quickly since its load is so light and climbs into the heavens and soon disappears from view,” he said.

“I am one of the lucky ones.”


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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.