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Remembering the Corps' response

Remembering the Corps' response

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[Editor's note: This originally was written for the fifth anniversary of the bonfire collapse and has been updated accordingly.]

As a former battalion adjutant, I understood how to do casualty reporting, so that morning Maj. [later Col.] Jake Betty and I set up an "Operations Center" in the guardroom. We had the Corps commander on site reporting as they brought folks out of the stack.

The units had performed a muster of their cadets, and so we developed a list of "unaccounted for" cadets. I remember standing in front of the dry erase board in the guardroom conference room, and as calls came in, I systematically moved names from missing to deceased.

The shock on cadet faces as they came to grips with the finality of death remains with me. I talked to the leadership there, telling them, as much for my sake as theirs, that they had to be strong, to give support to their comrades who would be suffering in their grief. After all, that's what leaders do.

It was a time I will never forget.

The Corps marched to the memorial service that night. The spontaneous outpouring of Aggie Spirit and dedication to one another was memorable, but the messages of the speakers were most moving. Their message spoke the following : You cannot run from life. This is the reality; you cannot run from it."

It hit hard to many who, as then-A&M President Ray Bowen said, "would hope that it would turn out differently, but it would not."

It was a time I will never forget.

A&M's leaders decided to play "The Game" the next week. It was a good decision. Aggies built bonfire to symbolize their burning desire to beat The University of Texas, and the team couldn't do that if it didn't play the game. So, the best way to recognize the reality of all this was to carry on with life as the others would do if they were here.

I was Parsons Mounted Cavalry advisor and a former artillery officer. When the Parsons Mounted Cavalry commander came to me and told me that the unit had been asked to fire a salute at the Yell practice on Kyle Field the next Thursday night, I got the cannon crewmembers together and told them exactly how to do it: Count 10 seconds between rounds: There would be 12. "One thousand, two thousand ... . Don't hurry your count."

We practiced dry firing without shells, and unit members showed a concentrated sense of purpose that the happy-go-lucky "Cav" guys usually didn't demonstrate.

They knew ... .

After a candlelight vigil at the bonfire site, probably 50,000 people quietly filed into Kyle Field. The field was darkened, lit only by the candles of those in attendance.

No one knew quite what to expect. There was a hush; then the cannon boomed out its loud report. It seemed to say, "We are here."

I have never seen a better rendition of a cannon salute. And when it was over, it was like a sense of closure came over the crowd. The lights came on and the head yell leader gave a remarkable speech, one full of hope, of purpose, of spirit. It was a perfect night.

It was a time I will never forget.

Game day dawned bright and clear. The dark clouds of despair seemed to have been washed away the previous night. The Parsons Mounted Cavalry commander came to me and asked if the unit could have a "riderless horse" in the march-in to Kyle Field, symbolizing those lost in the bonfire accident. The Corps commander agreed, so members did it, and they did it right.

A lone horse with a pair of senior boots placed backward in the stirrups was led by the first sergeant. No fanfare, no hoopla, just the unit's way of paying its last respects.

The Twelfth Man turned out that day, sensing that the best tribute the players could make to those who were gone would be to somehow, someway, through their very will, help the team to victory.

And you know it was hard to hate the Longhorns that day. The tribute of their students -- especially their band -- helped to put the rivalry in perspective.

There were many emotional moments that day, none more intense than the final fumble recovered by Brian Gamble who, dirty and drained by fatigue, silently lifted his hands to the sky as though saying, "this is for you."

The spirit of the fans, the intense focus and effort of the team in spite of all the emotion of the previous week were special.

It was a time I will never forget.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of that fateful day that bonfire fell. The emotion, the cold hard reality of that day have gone away -- lost in time which heals all wounds. But for those of us who were present, the memories will remain.

It was a time I will never forget.

* Retired Army Lt. Col. Jim Harrison of College Station is a former assistant commandant for logistics in the Office of the Commandant and advisor to the Parsons Mounted Cavalry at Texas A&M University.

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