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Country Life

Homecoming

by Richard Brookhiser

As a weekender, I do not subscribe to any of the daily newspapers upstate, so I had no advance notice of Sergeant Shawn Farrell’s homecoming, which happened on a Wednesday. But signs of it remained for days afterward.

The state road follows the diagonal of the valley from northeast to southwest. The first markers were the clusters of flags, thicker and more numerous even than on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, sprouting like red, white, and blue daffodils in front of stores and on lawns. Then, all the roadside reader boards, black letters on white backgrounds, that usually announce tractor pulls or hardware sales, instead carried unfamiliar messages. The driving eye, jogged by the first few, focused on the subsequent ones and registered the common sentiment, differently expressed: SGT. SHAWN FARRELL MISSED BUT NOT FORGOTTEN. SGT. SHAWN FARRELL FAIR WINDS AND FOLLOWING SEAS. OUR LOCAL HERO SGT. SHAWN FARRELL. A talk with a friend and a search online told the story.

Shawn Michael Farrell II, born September 1, 1989, joined the Army Reserve in his senior year in high school. The Oneida Daily Dispatch interviewed his track coach. “Farrell joined the team because he needed to be able to run a mile-and-a-half in a certain amount of time to join the Army. ‘I can remember him saying, “I’m not a runner,”’” his coach recalled. Farrell became one enough to qualify for active duty. “I can remember when he first came into school in his Army fatigues,” the coach added.

After training at Fort Benning and assignment to Fort Riley, Farrell joined the Tenth Mountain Division at Fort Drum. He deployed to Afghanistan from March 2011 to March 2012, then again in November 2013. “Sergeant Farrell was the first to greet me to my new platoon,” a fellow sergeant in Afghanistan told the DVIDS (Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System). “Just about anytime anyone new came to the platoon, he was always the first to greet them. . . . If a soldier didn’t understand something, he sat down and taught them what they needed to know.”

On April 28, Sergeant Farrell was supporting a Special Forces team in the Nejrab district of Kapisa Province, north of Kabul. “We got ambushed from multiple positions,” wrote a Special Forces soldier, who was there, on a blog called “Breach Bang Clear.” “[Sergeant Farrell] was on the Mk 47. . . . He had gone through multiple cans, we were two hours into the TIC and his truck was already shot up. The gun went down so he pulled out the SAW and exposed himself over the chicken plate to engage a s**tload of dudes in multiple positions.” Mk 47 is a grenade launcher; SAW (squad automatic weapon) is a machine gun; chicken plate is a gun shield (ironic — gunners are not chicken); cans are cans of ammunition; TIC stands for “troops in contact,” or the engagement. “Then he caught one through his arm into his chest. This kid was slinging it, and his last words to his team were, ‘I got him.’”

Sergeant Farrell is survived by his parents and stepparents, three brothers and two sisters, and his wife of one year and four months. The first comment on the Breach Bang Clear blog entry was from his mother. “Thank you for sharing more detailed information on my son’s final moments. I am so proud of him but miss him so very much.”

At the state capitol, his state senator offered a resolution in his honor, whose last Whereas reads, in part: “It is fitting and proper that we who are the beneficiaries of those who risk their lives, leaving their families behind, express our appreciation and eternal gratitude for their sacrifices and courageous acts.” The governor ordered flags at state office buildings to fly at half-staff.

The motorcade that accompanied Sergeant Farrell on May 7 up the Thruway and down the valley took eight minutes to pass any one point; footage of it is online, too. (America is a country of millions and time zones, but the Internet sometimes shrinks it back to a village.) There are fire trucks and sheriff’s and police cars; the black vehicles for coffin and family; most impressive, because most unusual, the Patriot Guard Riders. Formed originally to block off and drown out the evil mummery of the Westboro Baptist cult, the Patriot Guard Riders now accompany military, veterans, and first responders to their long home. So they rode, two by two, bike after bike, as if in a dream, the steady murmur of their engines a kind of silence.

In the city, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum has opened at the site of the World Trade Center. The consensus of the early reviews is that the layout and the exhibits — from twisted girders to ownerless eyeglasses — are both powerful and sensitive. (The gift shop and a planned museum café are another matter.) But the full September 11 Memorial spreads beyond the city, nationwide. Sergeant Farrell had just turned twelve years old when the Twin Towers were taken down; because they were, he died when he was 24. If it were not for al-Qaeda and its soulmates, no American would go to Kapisa Province in Afghanistan from one century to the next. But we do not get to choose the times we live in. This is not the place to argue the course of the war or the wisdom of its commanders. But even the best causes and leaders present a butcher’s bill. The American Revolution and World War II are well thought of; Nathanael Greene and Douglas MacArthur were on the whole capable warriors. Tell that to the soldiers at Fort Washington or Bataan. “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” wrote Ulysses Grant crisply in his memoirs.

Sergeant Farrell and the other 2,321 American military who have died in and around Afghanistan have done their duty. Ours is to think and vote wisely, and to remember. R.I.P. and thank you.

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