I fall back again on the original premise of why I started writing about my experiences in the war zones: to record for anyone who’s interested what it feels like to go to war. I hesitate tonight because I am angry, and conventional wisdom says to do nothing in anger. Then again, if I am to capture the feelings of being in war, I should record this accurately as well.
I’m not even sure why I am angry. I returned today from a two-day trip to visit a team south of us. While there, I finished up my meetings and went to the recreation hall to try to call my family. On the sign-in desk was a two-word message that I did not immediately understand. Turns out it was code for “commo equipment to the outside world is turned off.” That was an ominous sign.
Only two other people were in the rec hall at the moment, the attendant, and a Marine. He was watching a movie, so I sat down and watched as well. It was the ending of one of the Batman movies. I barely paid attention. My mind raced. By that time, I was pretty sure I had figured out the meaning of the two-word message, and I was already familiar with the circumstances that brought it about – 3 of our Marines from that post had lost their lives that morning.
Who were those men? I wondered. The incident had occurred less than three hours earlier. That meant that we had risen at nearly the same time. I had gone to meetings; they to meet destiny. Chances were that they had been in that same rec hall the night before, possibly sitting in those same chairs watching the same screen. I had been there then. Had I seen any of them? Perhaps they had used the same computer I had when trying to contact home. Perhaps in weeks past, they had come to sign into the rec center only to find the code words I had just seen, and wondered about those for whom the words expressed the message, “we are gone.”
Yesterday and today, I watched the Marines. When casualties occur, word spreads fast. They know, rapidly. These are youngsters with incredible resolve, skill, and dedication. Every day, they wake up knowing they might not see the end of the day. They do it for all sorts of reasons, but underlying all is love of country, and a determination to keep the wolves away from their loved ones back home. Would that the country matched their care and dedication. They cope. They are there for each other. They pick up, and move on to the next mission. Those who were close to the ones lost wear the loss on their faces – it appears in their gait, in the slight slump in their shoulders. But, they breathe deep, square shoulders, prepare for the next mission, and carry on.
On one occasion while I was in Iraq, I was sent out with my team to take the pulse of a local population. An IED had been detonated a month earlier and killed two US soldiers. The Command wanted to know if such acts were supported by the population local to that area, or if outsiders had set it. Security was provided by the same platoon that had been attacked. By the time we left on patrol, I knew them. I knew them individually, and as a group. I saw the haunted expressions they wore, and the little things they did to support each other. They were led by one of the best and most caring platoon leaders I have ever met. They provided security escort for our team to the IED site, and set up protection while we set about doing our work. As usual, children showed up, and I snapped one of the most poignant pictures I have seen of either war: It was of this platoon leader and his men handing out school supplies and toys to these Iraqi children in the same place where only a month earlier, their comrades had been blown apart. That is the quality of our fighting men and women.
Today is Easter, and I woke up wondering about the families of the Marines lost yesterday. Had they been notified yet? How will/does their anguish feel? Despite knowing the dangers, I am sure that none of them started their days yesterday expecting the news that would come via official uniformed officers appearing at their doors. At what point did it dawn on them the gravity of the news they were now bound to receive? What mothers, fathers, fiancées, wives, children were about to have their lives totally upended? Does our country continue to deserve such selfless devotion? Do its citizens even know, viscerally, that we are still at war?
As I made my way back to home-base today, I watched these young fighters. They sit or stand in their uniforms, their heavy equipment fitting them like a second skin, their rifles carried as another appendage. They relax into their immediate surroundings, their faces expressionless behind dark glasses, their helmets held tightly in place by chin straps. No one approaching them will doubt the damage any one of them can wreak when ordered. In the confines of the open flight terminal, they relax in the shade waiting for their flights. One stone-faced Marine approaches another. The second recognizes the first, sits up, and takes off his helmet and dark glasses. A bright smile crosses his face – joy at seeing a friend. They greet and joke, and personality pours in and transforms them back to what they are – our kids, who deserve every ounce of special support that we can send their way.