MONS, Belgium – It is a unique experience being a U.S. citizen who grew up actively involved with family from another country, specifically a Dutch cousin named Dennis Fijnvandraat with whom I have been getting into trouble with since I was three years old. With years and the Atlantic Ocean separating us for years at a time, neither of us could imagine how much we would share together and separately in life including military service, time deployed in combat operations and honoring fallen comrades.
When Dennis and I were young and living in Europe at the same time, we would spend summers together in The Netherlands going to camp, riding bikes and playing games. Since my father was stationed in Germany multiple times during my child hood we got to see each other all the time it seemed. After my dad retired and the European tours stopped, he came all the way to the U.S. one summer to visit and we toured the country together.
As we got older, as it often happens, we grew apart and saw each other less, but neither of our families could predict how we would grow up. We both joined our nation’s armed forces and volunteered to join airborne units. Dennis joined the Dutch 11th Air Mobile Brigade and I eventually joined the 82nd Airborne Division, and both of us would serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We reconnected when I got stationed in Germany in 2012 and again when I was stationed in Belgium in 2017. We got to hang out and enjoy more unique experiences including both of us becoming fathers, walking in international marching events and our shared love of beer and fine scotch. Our military experience, while something we had in common, was never something we truly shared until Dennis invited me to a memorial for one of his fallen friends.
When my cousin joined the “Red Berets” of the 11th Air Mobile Brigade, his platoon leader was a young 2nd Lieutenant Dennis van Uhm. My cousin was fresh from his indoctrination into the airborne and van Uhm was fresh out of a Dutch military academy. Together they grew as leaders.
My cousin, while infantry by trade, was also his platoon’s combat lifesaver which in a Dutch platoon meant he was constantly interacting with his platoon leader and sergeant. This is where he and 2nd Lieutenant van Uhm grew close as they trained together at work and boxed together in their free time. Lieutenant van Uhm left the airborne to join an armored infantry unit, but he and my cousin would be deployed to the same base in Afghanistan in 2008 and kept touch while there.
On April 18, 2008, a convoy of Dutch soldiers from the 45th Armored Infantry Battalion was driving back to Kamp Holland near Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan when the fourth vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. In the vehicle were Corporal First Class Roger Hack, Private First Class Toninho Norden, Private First Class Mark Schouwink and 1st Lieutenant Dennis van Uhm. Norden and Hack were both critically injured by the blast, Schouwink and van Uhm would not survive.
“We four drove over an improvised explosive device and this killed Dennis (van Uhm) and Mark Schouwink instantly,” said Norden. “I lost both my legs in the blast and Hack was also seriously injured.”
The night before Dennis van Uhm left for his final mission, he and my cousin boxed together for the last time.
Although my cousin was not from Lieutenant van Uhm’s unit at the time, he was allowed to take active part in the ramp ceremony in Afghanistan by carrying the personal belongings of the deceased.
“Dennis (van Uhm) still had a smile on his face until the very end because he loved being a leader and being with his soldiers,” my cousin told me. “He died doing what he loved.”
Every year since this attack, my cousin and members of the 11th Air Mobile Brigade and 45th Armored Infantry Battalion gather on the Saturday before April 18 to pay their respects to 1st Lieutenant van Uhm, and this year I went as well. I had been to memorial services before for U.S. Soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, therefore I expected a similar memorial: solemn and serious. What I was met with was something else entirely.
On April 13, 2019, just outside the gates of Loenen Military Cemetery near Apeldoorn, The Netherlands a group of forty people gathered. The air around this group was anything but solemn; it was downright jubilant. All of these men and women were laughing, joking and telling stories about their friend: Dennis van Uhm.
A few moments later, Dutch Colonel Frank Bal, van Uhm’s company commander at the time of his death, told everyone they would begin soon. The group made their way to Lieutenant van Uhm’s grave and the ceremony became solemn at the appropriate time, with a moment of silence and opening remarks.
“Eleven years ago we lost an amazing leader and fighter, and every year we come back to remember him and think about what he would have become in life,” he said. “What is so amazing is, every year our group gets bigger and not smaller. It shows how many people still love and care about Dennis.”
Then, in keeping with a tradition this group set out during their first memorial, Captain Kenneth Spiertz, one of van Uhm’s fellow officers, pulls a bottle of single malt scotch from its box, opens it and hands it to Colonel Bal.
“This year Dennis would have been one year older, so, as is our tradition, the scotch is also one year older,” Colonel Bal said.
He then raised the bottle to the grave and took a drink. He passed the bottle to everyone in attendance – they toasted and had a drink for their fallen friend. At the end of the ceremony, Colonel Bal noted that the bottle had never been that empty before, a sign that more people wanted to drink to Dennis’ life.
Then, after Sergeant Toninho Norden and Corporal 1st Class Lezley Ferdinandus, both of whom served in Afghanistan with Dennis and had since left military service, laid a wreath on 1st Lieutenant van Uhm’s grave, each person in attendance moved forward and paid their respects. My cousin left a bouquet of white roses and I left a set of U.S. jump wings. This was a man I had never met, but he was a good leader and friend to my cousin and I felt something needed to be left there.
As each attendee finished paying their respects, they left the grave and returned to the gates of the cemetery where the laughter, memories and camaraderie began again. One by one, each person bid their farewell to each other with the same words, “I’ll see you next year.” They all planned on being there again.
As my cousin and I drove back to his home, he thanked me for being there to pay respect to his friend. I was dumbfounded as it was my honour to be a part of this ceremony. Then the truth of our lives hit me, exactly how much we had in common in spite of growing up on different continents. We joined the Army, volunteered to join airborne units, served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now we had both honoured a fallen soldier.
It was after this realization that my cousin said one last thing about the ceremony before we got on with our plans for the day.
“We were all friends with Dennis (van Uhm) and for many of us this is the only time we get to see each other. Many of us are now civilian with jobs and lives and we all dealt with the war in our own way, but Dennis and his ceremony brings us together every year. For us it is a happy thing, to celebrate his life and reunite in this way.”