(written on Friday 17th December 2010).
It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s funny how people say "it’s funny" when really, it’s anything but. It’s funny how people feel when they can’t quite articulate how they feel, so they continue feeling "funny". This evening I went to mass for the first time in a long time. Standing there in the middle of a tiny cardboard chapel with 30 or so fellow faithful combat-clad followers, innumerable emotions swelled up inside of me, dragging my scraggy thoughts through seeming eons of reflection. Writing this, I’m still undecided on the best way to describe just how I feel, so I guess we’ll all have to make do with "funny".
Today at 13.42 local time, Capitaine Benoit Dupin of the 3rd Company of the 2eme Regiment Etranger du Génie was killed in action while on a reconnaissance mission in the Tagab Valley. That’s my regiment. That’s my company. That’s my valley. That was my Captain.
Standing shoulder to shoulder in that make-shift church tonight were more than a few non-believers. They weren’t there out of some panic-driven conversion, nor out of a sense of grudging obligation. Those who carved an unfamiliar path to that church door this evening did so out of unshakeable, unquestionable respect. Respect for a man who, in his short time as Commandant d’Unité of our company, made such an indelibly positive impression on all who served under his command that reddened eyes from even the hardiest of Legionnaires was nothing short of entirely expected as the news broke. Here was an officer that unwittingly, unflinchingly, effortlessly defied the status quo re: French officers. A Captain who shook hands with the young Legionnaires he encountered in the morning, on the way to the washrooms or breakfast. A Captain who, in his free time, toured the FOB to see if any under his charge were engaged in the reparation of vehicles or construction of combat posts, to chat with them, offer support, encouragement, a chirpy word which, from your CDU, was always uplifting and dare I say inspiring. A Captain who enjoyed his sport and whose fitness levels motivated all his men to progress to or maintain similar standards. A Captain with a company of Legionnaires who would follow him anywhere and everywhere. A Captain with a beautiful wife, Alicia, and an adorable 4 year old daughter, Helena.
This evening the FOB became a ghost town. All posts were abandoned, all buildings emptied, all tents zipped shut. All void save for the Parade Square at the Western most point of the base, where more than 500 men and women assembled to pay homage to Capitaine Dupin. The flag descended to half-mast as a lonely bugle sent forth the solemn "Aux Morts". Bathed in toxic, mercurial moonlight, the congregation stood to attention before a backdrop of sky-scraping mountains. Bizarre shadows spurted and sprawled across the concrete floor as the moon’s silver rays collapsed on the distinct berets of les Chasseurs Alpins and rebounded furiously off the glimmering flames of the Legion’s insignia. Not a word, not a sound. Even the wild dogs in the valley below rescinded their howls momentarily. It seemed as if Mother Nature herself felt compelled to agree that even in a war such as this, surely on this occasion they had gotten the wrong man.
One month out of six has passed and with it, one of the finest leaders one could hope to have served under. The road ahead is long and paved with danger. Of course, we apparently already knew this at the very beginning. Only today has it actually become a reality. Capitain Dupin, you will be sorely missed, you will be fondly remembered, you will be courageously honoured by all those fortunate to have called you "Mon. Capitaine", comme il faut.
NB* Hours after the writing of this, French Special Forces launched an assault on a known Taliban strongpoint in the Valley. Initial reports told of 12 insurgents killed. This number later grew to a none-the-more-reliable 23. One French soldier - a sergeant from the French Marine Commandos - died during the operation. In the wake of the attack, a local tribal elder approached our FOB seeking words with the Colonel. He requested a temporary cessation of activity to allow for the burial of the deceased insurgents. His request was refused outright.
News has already broke in France concerning Capitaine Dupin’s passing. For us, life goes on. The mission continues. Capitaine Dupin always insisted how "Il n’ya pas des petits missions". From here on in, every mission’s being treated with the enormity it deserves, exactly as it should be. Exactly as he would have wanted.