Memorial Day is our nation’s most solemn holiday. On this day we honor those who gave their lives in the service of our country.

Like every veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, I have a personal story about far too many of those who made this ultimate sacrifice. Today I’d like to honor one of them.
I first met SFC Johnny Polk in late 2000 at Fort Hood, TX. I was taking command of a M109A6 Paladin Battery in the First Cavalry Division and then-SGT Polk had the confidence – or audacity – to approach me and say he wanted a gun. He wanted to be a howitzer section chief.
For those unfamiliar with a Field Artillery battery, the guns are where it’s at. Everyone wants to be on a gun, no one wants to be in support of one. Not only did SGT Polk want to man a gun, he wanted to be in charge of one. Two months later when one of my section chiefs moved to another post, he got his chance.
SGT Polk was a wonderful non-commissioned officer. Mission focused, the word "can’t" was not in his vocabulary. He worked his soldiers hard and demanded much from them, but he was always fair. I worked with him for close to two years before I unfortunately had to leave the Battery and move on.
Years later, after leaving Fort Hood but eventually being sucked back into the First Cav, I bumped into now SSG Polk once again. About a month before another Iraq deployment, he walked into my office smiling – he always had a smile on his face. He, too, was back at Ft. Hood and assigned as a Platoon Sergeant in our Headquarters Battery. We reminisced for a half hour before I let him go, and felt confident that our team had just gotten much stronger.
We saw each other sparingly over the course of the next nine months, but I kept tabs on him and the reports were always stellar. He was leading his platoon almost daily on patrols in the streets of Kirkuk, Iraq. He helped to train and mentor the local Iraqi police, participated in operations to detain insurgents, and most of all he gained the trust and confidence of the men in his platoon.
On the 23rd of July, 2009, I got a call. A truck had been hit with an RKG-3. I heard a battle roster number. I prayed it wasn’t him.
I made it to the ER seconds after the patrol pulled in. The soldiers were running on adrenaline. Didn’t know what to do. SSG Polk was breathing when they brought him in. Now it was up to the doctors and the Lord above.
I had been in that emergency room several other times before, and I’d be there only one more time after. We soon learned SSG Johnny Polk’s heart was still beating – he was strong, an athlete, football player – but he was brain dead. An RKG-3 had taken his body. The Lord now had his soul.
After some time the medical staff laid him in an adjacent room and told us we could say goodbye. By then word had gotten out and the line to say goodbye was long. Johnny touched quite a lot of people.
My last memory of SSG Johnny Polk is of him lying in peace, breathing, eyes closed, with person after person walking, one at a time, into the room to pay their final respects. I stood there until I couldn’t take it anymore, then I paid my last respects.
His heart still beating – Johnny was strong – he flew to Landstuhl, Germany. I vaguely remember that they were trying to keep him alive long enough so his family could say goodbye, but I don’t know if that mission was accomplished or not. Less than a week later I was in Landstuhl myself en route to San Antonio with two broken legs and a broken neck. I have a drug addled memory of someone telling me he was there at the same time I was, but I could be mistaken.
Johnny never wore the rank of Sergeant First Class. The Army approves a promotion request for anyone who has been selected but has not yet pinned on their new rank when killed in action. SSG Polk was to become a SFC because of his outstanding performance and his leadership potential. He was already performing at that level when he died.
He was truly one of our finest Americans, and I’d like to end this tribute to him by quoting the first stanza of the poem "Bivouac of the Dead", portions of which can be found inscribed on placards throughout Arlington Cemetery.
The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo;
No more on Life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents to spread,
And glory guards, with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
Rest well SFC Polk. We’ll see each other again someday in Fiddler’s Green.
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