The chapel of Forward Operating Base Falcon was packed; the pews were full of soldiers, from generals to privates, and more men stood alongside the walls and in the back. At the front, on a chancel made of plywood, was an assault rifle, mounted vertically, a helmet on its stock, and tan desert boots at its base. From the weapon hung dog tags — the dog tags of Staff Sergeant Karl Soto-Pinedo, who was killed by an insurgent last week in Baghdad. The memorial ceremony began precisely at seven-thirty, as planned.
Five speakers took their turns at a lectern next to Soto-Pinedo’s memorial stand. One by one they extolled the virtues of battlefield bravery and of Soto-Pinedo’s drive and initiative in particular. Raised in Puerto Rico, Soto-Pinedo needed to take an English proficiency course as soon as he joined the Army in October 2002, just out of high school. He was good with people and obviously well-liked; a slideshow of snapshots projected on a screen showed him arm and arm with his buddies, many of them now sitting red-eyed in this room. He towered over most of them; his nickname was Big Soto. He’d just been promoted to Staff Sergeant two months ago.
After the speakers were finished, an Army chaplain said a prayer. Then, suddenly, there was the Last Roll Call: a gruff-voiced First Sergeant somewhere in the crowd bellowed out the name of one of his men; that soldier called back in a sharp retort. The sergeant called another man; he called back instantly. Then the sergeant called out “Sgt. Soto!”.
The room was quiet.
“Staff Sgt. Soto!”
“Staff Sergeant Karl Soto-Pinedo!”
Absolute quiet, inside and out. Iraq, the land of constant cacophony, seemed to hold its breath in tribute.
Then, piercing the stillness like the sudden shot that felled Soto, three volleys of gunfire from outside the chapel. A trumpeter, also outside, played Taps, legato, hushed.
Finally, in pairs, the officers in the room approached the memorial stand. They saluted in unison. Major General Fils, the commander of Soto’s First Infantry Division, reached out and touched the helmet, gently, as if it were a newborn baby’s cheek. More officers followed; many were crying. Then the enlisted men approached, more informally; they stood sometimes six or seven abreast; saluting slowly, not always in sync. Several of them grabbed Soto’s dog tags, pulling the chain taught, and prayed or wept or both.
Karl Soto-Pinedo was killed last Tuesday, felled by a bullet during a routine patrol in Baghdad. He was 22.