Wednesday, June 22

Turn the Page

A friend from Brasil once told me that if it rains on the day of a funeral, it's God's way of saying that the man of the moment wasn't a half decent bloke! As the rain cascaded down from the heavens this morning, saturating the small congregation through to the skin, there was little doubt as to the calibre of the man we had gathered to pay homage to. The preceding days and nights had been spent in quiet concentration, iron in one hand, our shirts being meticulously manipulated by the other. Crease after crease, line by line, inch by inch of delicate cotton being passed and re-passed by the hissing, smoldering iron as we prepared our uniforms for a very special and long-overdue ceremony.

It's been seven months since Capitaine Benoît Dupin, our commanding officer, leader and shining example in Afghanistan was killed in action. Due to the five remaining months of the Afghan mission, ensuing holidays and the return to regimental life however, only now has it been possible for us, his men, to make the trip to Descartes, a small town outside Tours in central France where his grave lies. It had certainly been a while since such an opportunity was afforded to reflect fully on Capitaine Dupin, his prowess as a leader, his grounded nature as an officer among rough-cut Legionnaires, and the circumstances that took him from us a week before Christmas last. The eery tuneless melody of fat, steamy rain drops pounding off the tops of our snow white képis gleaming through the morning gloom provided an apt score to our various reels of wandering thoughts. Like God's own private, discordant timpani forgotten by time, the downpour danced and splattered off heads, shoulders and shining shoes washing away every fold, every crease, every speck of polish. But not the memories. Not the anecdotes. Not the picture of a smiling Capitaine Dupin shaking your hand in the morning and wishing you good luck on your next mission. Even in a flood so apocalyptic as to render Noah's ark a mere rubber duck in a leaky bath tub, those souvenirs of Capitaine Dupin would have held firm. Immoveable, unshakeable, just like his courage and spirit.

Also in attendance were members of his family, his wife and seven year old daughter the most poignant present. His parents and brother also came, standing huddled under umbrellas but nevertheless extremely appreciative for the opportunity to meet the men Dupin had sworn to protect on our overseas tour. Indeed in correspondence written to his wife days before his death, Capitaine Dupin had explained how his greatest fear was to lose a Legionnaire under his charge, to have to inform the family of their loss. Irony took on a rather tragic guise with that one.

A small post-ceremony buffet was prepared by members of the Dupin family, both immediate and extended. Our commanding officers encouraged us to go speak with the family, but initial reluctance was to be expected. His mother went around the soldiers offering home-baked biscuits. "I'm Benoît's mum" she sobbed uncontrollably as we thanked her. Nobody knew where to look, what to say, how to stand, anything. Finally I plucked up the courage to approach a gentleman beside the door of the little community hall. He was the captain's father-in-law. I tried to explain how much the captain meant to all the legionnaires, how different he was to every other officer we had encountered, how sorry we were for the family and for putting them through yet another ceremony (our little outing was the 4th "official" ceremony the family had had to endure since his death only seven months earlier). He thanked me, visibly distraught. I shook his hand and returned to where I had been standing. Moments later left the building, returning a half hour later. So much had happened since the Captain's death. And yet so little time had elapsed. The wounds were still understandably raw.

The food soon made an appearance and spirits lifted ever so slightly. A group of us got talking to his uncle who recounted several humorous stories of the captain's childhood. This conversation was followed up with a very amiable chat with Capitaine Dupin's father. The genuine appreciation and consolation upon hearing - direct from us Legionnaires - just how much we liked and respected the captain was immediately evident. We couldn't say enough positive things, his dad couldn't thank us enough. Any fears of tripping over funeral clichés were unflinchingly discarded. When words carry such passion and honesty, clichés evaporate into thin air. Which is exactly what happened to the rain as the gathering drew to a close. The clouds broke and a beautiful, bright, blisteringly engorged sun filled the sky. Everyone stepped outside for photos to be taken of the assembled Legionnaires with the Dupin family. Smiles gradually broke too, like the sunshine, and an invisible weight appeared to have been lifted. As his brother told a group of us beside the open door of the bus waiting to take us back to the train station, it would've been nice to have met under different circumstances. Of course, under different circumstances we would probably have never met at all. I hope that somewhere, wherever he is, Capitaine Dupin can find some solace in the union witnessed today. A union between two families who loved, respected and cherished him. And will forever continue do so.

Adieu Mon. Capitaine.

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