I was going to write today about Donald Trump, America, our foreign policy and my own journey home after six years. Those things weigh pretty heavy on my mind. But today, March 13, has a heavy significance for me and some friends of mine. That significance runs deeper than politics. It’s tied to politics in a way, to say it’s not denies that reality, but at the core of it, it’s something far deeper. March 13 is a personal anniversary for some of us. It’s a kind of anniversary that a lot of soldiers all over the world have. On a bigger level it’s an anniversary a lot of people have. It’s the day someone you care about dies.
March 13, 2004, D Co. 1/504, 82nd Airborne Division, US Army. My old unit. I had been out of the Army for around three months. In that time the unit had gotten deployed to Iraq. It was a three month mission, a relief in place. On that March 13, a truck blew up. Three of our friends died. Three of our brothers died. There’s a story around that day but that’s not the story I want to tell today.
The US Army has a way of bringing people together. Every Army does, but I think the Americans have made a science of it. You take someone around the ages of eighteen to twenty five, you shave their head, you put a uniform on them, you make them all look similar, you take away that individuality we always grasp for in an individualistic culture like America and then the person’s true core, who they really are, starts to come to the forefront. More importantly, they become part of a team, part of a unit, in the process of becoming, they also lose a part of that individuality and become part of a greater whole, which is the squad or section or platoon. Instead of being an individual now, you’re more like an arm or a leg on a part of a body. And you view the other person as part of that team, part of that body, that’s why you fight for them, that’s why you’d die for them. And if something happens to them, that causes pain and that pain doesn’t go away easily.
The military creates certain bonds amongst people. These bonds really are familial bonds in a way. They’re strong. But they’re not the only bonds around. These bonds can be in a family, with close friends, with a community, with other people who you’ve suffered with or shared joy with. The bonds can be built in a number of ways. And they’re important. Being with and around and a part of other people is what makes life worth living. And when people die, particularly when they die young, then there’s a tragedy there, there’s a real loss.
Death doesn’t bother me really. But when somebody dies young before they’ve really had a chance to experience so much of what life has to offer, that’s a tragedy. A lesser tragedy, is one that many of us experience, dying older and having not achieved our full potential. But having that robbed from you at a young age. That’s really sad. And senseless death, which I feel so much death is, is also tragic. It’s tragic that we can’t stop it, it’s tragic that we can’t do more about it, it’s tragic that we do allow individual greed, arrogance and hubris to drive events that can result in the loss of many, many lives. It’s equally tragic that when we do save lives we forget about helping take care of those lives in need as they progress through this world.
I think this is one of the greatest challenges of humanity. How do we lessen these tragedies?
That’s a big subject for another time. For now, back to my friends. I want to tell a story now. It’s a story that helps me make sense of the whole thing and it’s a story I think of when I’m looking for meaning in things. It’s about one of those men on that truck.
He was a Staff Sergeant in the US Army. Clint was his name. He was my first boss really when I got to the 82nd Airborne Division. He was one of the best bosses I ever had. I don’t say that just because he’s gone. I say it because it’s true. He was this Mormon dude from Utah, was missing one of his front teeth so when he smiled it would just be this humorous sight. He loved his wife, loved his children. He took care of his soldiers. Most Sergeants in our unit, when we went to the motor pool to work on the trucks or something, they either wouldn’t go, or they would and they’d stand there and shout orders. Not Clint, him, he worked, right alongside of the boys. Re-enforced a lesson my father had taught me when I was young, never ask someone to do work that you won’t do with them or that you haven’t done.
He was a good guy. I remember our company got tasked with a deployment to Kosovo before September 11. September 11 happened, but we were already getting deployed and we were stuck to it. I think we left late November 2001. Before we left, Clint had us over to his house for Thanksgiving. There were ten or eleven of us, almost all single soldiers aged between nineteen and twenty three. Him and his wife had just had their second child, a baby girl. The boy, he was three or four I think.
I don’t remember the day that well. I feel like we played basketball. We definitely ate some good food. It was nice to have that familial sense on a very family oriented holiday in the US. It was good.
Towards the end of our time there, I remember his wife bringing out a jar of jellybeans. She said that the boy would eat one jellybean for every day that his father was gone. There was exactly one hundred and eighty (however many) jellybeans in that jar. One for each day.
I imagine he ate his jellybean a day. And after six months or so, his father came home. About six months later we got deployed to Afghanistan. Seven months passed and his father came home again. Some months after that I left the Army, I was done with my four year contract. A few months later, Clint went to Iraq with the unit. He didn’t come back.
A wife lost her husband. Children lost their father. A family lost their son, brother. We lost one of ours.
It makes you feel empty. You search for meaning in things. Some guys they question their own existence, why didn’t I die instead of him?
It happens all over the world. With people of all different shapes, colors, sizes and religions. It’s not an American thing. It’s a human thing.
We point fingers. We wave flags. We denounce people. We proclaim others as saints. Does any of that really help? At the end of the day, it’s a man or a woman and they were your friend. You should honor both their life and their death and if those things had problems in them, then in honoring them you should understand what those problems are and try to do your best to fix them, less those problems should befall others.
On another level, it’s about honoring those that have gone before us. For my part, I learned a lot from my friends. And for me, from Clint in particular. I learned about work. I had a role model of this is what you should be when you’re a leader. And then there’s the jellybeans.
I think about them sometime. Just one day. One day after another. And one day you don’t come home. So if there’s any lessen there, it’s about really figuring out how to make the most of the time we have. That is how we truly honor those we’ve lost.