Roll Call, TAPS, The Tears

Rolando Gomez, President George H. Bush

The president had a few minutes to spare to talk to me about Texas on his visit to Panama. Photo by his photographer David Valdez.

The recent terrorists attacks in Paris brought back 23-year old memories from when I served in the U.S. Army—the murder of Cpl. Zak Albert Hernández Laporte, 22, killed by terrorists during an ambush while driving his assigned Humvee near the Chilibre River bridge, Panama. He was posthumously promoted from corporal to sergeant.

Sgt. Ronald T. Marshall of Arkansas was also severely injured in the rain of bullets from three terrorists in that attack along with a 12-year old boy. I was about 16 miles away at the United States Southern Command Headquarters in Quarry Heights helping coordinate the visit of President George H.W. Bush who would arrive in less than 24-hours on June 11, 1992. As the personal photographer to Gen. George A. Joulwan, the Commander in Chief, United States Southern Command, I was to spend about half the day photographing the president’s visit alongside his personal photographer, David Valdez.

My “boss,” was flying in on Air Force One with the president and my mission was to photographically document him and the president along with their interactions with the Panamanian people plus our own U.S. military personnel and families assigned to Panama, along with his meeting with Panama’s President, Guillermo David Endara.

Security was tight before that terrorists attack, and it became even tighter that fatal day. I can’t even tell you how many times the Secret Service changed our routes of travel, as I would travel in the presidential motorcade throughout the president’s one-day visit. Things were changing by the minute as intelligence and the incident details filtered in to our command.

Though President Bush’s time was cut short after gunshots and tear gas were fired during the downtown portion of his visit, I still have a video I recorded later that evening at the barracks from all the newscasts of CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS. They were aired consecutively on the one American television channel we had, the military Southern Command Network—yes, you can clearly see me alongside the president in those videos I have on a VHS tape.

Terrorists Attack, Presidential Memorabilia

I still have some memorabilia from the president’s visit in Panama that occurred less than 24-hours after the terrorists attack in Panama that killed one soldier and wounded another.

Following the visit, I remember developing some of the photographs of President Bush at the Photo Lab in Ft. Clayton, were I was also asked to help with the images of Cpl. Hernandez’ death. I will never forget those images. But when I hear TAPS, I think more of the day when when I boarded the CINC’s Blackhawk helicopter and we flew to the “Atlantic side,” to attend Cpl. Hernandez’ memorial service at the Ft. Sherman base theater.

This memorial service is a tradition to recognize the fallen, in this case Cpl. Hernandez. The theater was filled with his comrades, his fellow soldiers in arms from his unit and surrounding units. Cpl. Hernandez’ boots were on the stage floor, in the center, next to his Kevlar helmet placed above with it’s personalized headband, his identification “dog” tags and his M-16 rifle.

The memorial started with a eulogy by his commander, then his Sgt. Maj., then his 1st. Sgt., and finally a few of his close fellow soldiers. Then came the most tear jerking part, the traditional military “roll call” after the death of a comrade. This custom is for the recognition of the fallen soldier.

Roll Call Military Tradition

“Roll Call” is a U.S. military tradition to honor fallen comrades. U.S. Army photo.

I was not a member of his unit nor did I know Cpl. Hernandez personally, but as a soldier you do feel the connection of a comrade similar to an immediate family member. I was there to document this somber event. This was my first roll call but as a soldier I knew the concept—it is conducted so fellow soldiers can accept their comrades death and begin the grieving process. Cpl. Hernandez’ 1st. Sgt. then conducted the roll call.

It started with the names of the unit’s soldiers being called in alphabetical order, and as each name was called, each soldier proudly and respectfully acknowledged their presence, “Here 1st. Sgt.!” Then when they arrived at Cpl. Hernandez’ name the most tear jerking part began.

“Cpl. Hernandez,” followed by a pause, “Cpl. Hernandez,” followed by another pause, “Cpl. Hernandez,” and then a longer pause of silence. Obviously there was no answer only an emotional silence were you could hear the heartbeats of every solider plus the sounds associated with tears. Then whom I believe was his squad leader stated, “Cpl. Hernandez is no longer with us 1st. Sgt.”

The statement was then repeated by whom I believe was his platoon leader, which is usually a 1st lieutenant, or his company commander, a captain. I just don’t remember exactly the ranks from that day because my mind was focused on what Cpl. Hernandez went through based on what I had been told in a security briefing the day it happened. I was sad for the corporal, his family and friends, plus I was mad at who ever had committed such a heinous crime.

The theater fell completely silent again, other than the tearful sounds of some of the bravest and toughest soldiers in the U.S. Army. Then TAPS began to play. But it wasn’t just any playing of TAPS, as two buglers played in a form of TAPS called “echo Taps,” one on each side of the theater in the back by the entrance doorways. I had never heard TAPS like that before and if you’d like to hear it, click the play button below. Not a solider had dry eyes, not even Gen. Joulwan or our SOUTHCOM Sgt. Major. Not I, not anyone.

Press play to less to the “echo” version of TAPS

Cpl. Hernandez’ boots, helmet, and rifle were illuminated by a bold spotlight as the rest of the theater was dark. As TAPS continued to play, all of us standing at the position of attention, the stage became a blur as though we were looking through clear water.

Eyes watered and tears fell, a few sobbed as we all felt the loss of a fellow soldier. Not just any soldier, but a patriot who died for his country. A patriot who took the military oath:

“I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

That day Cpl. Hernandez met his God. Again, while I didn’t personally know him, I’ll never forget his memorial service, especially the roll call, the TAPS, and his sacrifice for our freedoms at the hands of terrorists he’d never met.

While I’ve been out of the military service for some time, yesterday, the terrorists attacks in Paris brought back that memory and how I had arrived in Panama just after the Noriega conflict to serve immediately after my stint in Desert Storm.

During my 26-month tour in Panama I documented many interesting things including the guerilla warfare of the Sendero Luminso, or the Shining Path guerillas, to the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in Peru, and the drug war during the era of Pablo Emilio Escobar. However, the memorial service of a soldier I never met, killed by terrorists is burned in my mind forever.

Sadly one of Cpl. Hernandez’ three killers, according to the U.S. government, Pedro Miguel González Pinzón, was later elected president to Panama’s National Assembly in 2007. He still remains a fugitive in the eyes of the U.S. government, though he was acquitted in what is considered a corrupt trial in Panama. Cpl. Hernandez’s mother still prays today that someday González will enter the U.S., or a country with an extradition agreement with the U.S., so González is immediately arrested and brought to trial.

While I pray for the people impacted in Paris by recent terrorists attacks, I also pray that someday the terrorists that killed Cpl. Hernandez will eventually be brought to justice so his family and friends can have closure. In fact, as I close, I ask everyone to not forget the men and women who serve so proudly to protect our freedoms, especially against terrorists. God bless them, their family and friends, Rolando.

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