When I covered the Robert Gates book signing event Thursday at Fort Hood, I expected those waiting in line to be a mix of soldiers, veterans and others interested in the military, politics and history.
I didn’t expect Heather Ketchmark to be excitedly waiting to meet the former secretary of defense, much less the first in line.
But there she was, beaming with excitement. Her supportive husband, a sergeant first class in the 1st Cavalry Division, was there, too, holding some extra copies of Gates’ new book “Duty.” The two arrived at 8 a.m., three hours before the book signing was set to start.
Ketchmark knew to come to the Clear Creek Main Exchange book signing early to get a good seat. Several weeks ago, she came to get a book signed by “Uncle” Si Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame. Thousands showed up and officials had to cut it off at one point, sending fans of Uncle Si home with no signature.
As exciting as the Uncle Si book signing was, however, the Gates book signing was very personal for Ketchmark.
Her brother is mentioned in the book. Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Bowles was killed in Afghanistan and was the last service member to come home under the military’s former policy of banning photos of fallen service members coming home in coffins, Ketchmark said.
Ketchmark came across her brother’s name in the book by accident. She was flipping through it in the store a few weeks ago and saw a photo of a flag-draped coffin that grabbed her attention. When she flipped the page, she saw her brother’s name.
Humbled, she decided to give the former defense secretary a silver-plated memorial coin the family made in honor of Bowles.
As I watched the exchange, amid flashes and shutters of news cameras, I was left with a lasting impression: Family members of those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the military leaders who sent them there, will for decades to come be intertwined as the burden of responsibility and the burden of loss, at times, merge together.
As paths cross — long after the U.S. is out of Afghanistan — it will be interesting to see how those relationships play out.
Gates’ and Ketchmark’s meeting was a sign those relationships will be positive.
Later that day, I looked up Bowles.
He was killed March 15, 2009, when the vehicle he was in encountered a roadside bomb, killing four other airmen. A fire engine mechanic, Bowles volunteered to go on the mission that day after another comrade was out sick.
He was 24.
But his memory will live on forever, thanks to Gates’ book and family members like Ketchmark.