Eleven years ago, I was a specialist who had been in the Army just barely more than six months. After finishing basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and journalist training at Fort Meade, Md., I reported to Fort Benning, Ga., for Airborne School, an exciting three weeks during which I’d run a lot, learn to jump out of airplanes and earn the $3,000 bonus I’d signed up for after learning the $8,000 I thought I’d get for having a bachelor’s degree expired the day before I reported to the military entrance processing station in Knoxville, Tenn.
Through a series of circumstances I really don’t want to get into here, I quit. There’s lots of places I could place the blame if that’s the kind of person I was, but ultimately I was a coward. After looking forward to it for half a year, I couldn’t wrap my brain around jumping out of an airplane.
Wasting the Army’s time and money is bad enough at any time, but it really sucks when you’re a solider who has yet to report to a proper unit and your entire enlistment contract was built around you jumping out of airplanes and reporting to Fort Bragg, N.C. When you’re that guy, they send you to a holding company where you’ll get to spend your days doing anything necessary to justify your pay while the Army figures out what to do with you. Having stepped back from the path of the paratrooper, I’d given myself to the needs of the Army, and from other soldiers in the company I learned that it might be a while until I got new orders and I’d be lucky if I wasn’t sent to Korea.
So I woke up most mornings and underwent the most grueling physical training I’d encountered to that point under the leadership of a grizzled Vietnam veteran of a sergeant first class who spoke with the thickest, most unintelligible backwater Louisiana accent I’ve ever heard. We’d do situps and pushups until we’d puke before running uncounted miles. The infantry guys in our group hacked it okay, but for me, it was the first time I truly appreciated the differences between basic training at different sites. I was close to a stud at Jackson, but these infantry guys made me feel like I belonged on the bottom rung.
After getting physically crushed, we’d all get sent out for whatever the day’s work details were, usually with whatever squad we’d been assigned to. I quickly became everybody’s favorite in my squad because I was the guy who got to be a specialist without “earning” it (please grasp my sarcasm here). So I’d go out with a group of guys who didn’t like me much and do things like paint fences and pull weeds out of sidewalks in front of one unit or another’s headquarters building. I’m telling you, those two weeks or so were the life (note again my sarcasm).
About this time eleven years ago, on the Friday before Memorial Day, it seemed like everyone at Fort Benning – even most of us quitters and injured troops in the holding company – got the day off. I say most of us because my squad had to work that day. We drew the assignment of placing flags on every grave in the Main Post Cemetery.
At the time, with everything going on in my life and career, I really just wanted a weekend off to go home, so I’m sad to say I didn’t go into that detail with the reverent attitude one should have when doing a job that important; I was annoyed. Instead of being on the road to Chattanooga, I was stuck with a bunch of Joes who didn’t like me much meticulously sticking flags in what seemed like uncountable graves. The corporal who was put in charge of us didn’t make it too bad a day, but still I was in a bad mood.
I look back on that now and realize what an honor it was to perform that duty. I think I knew it then, deep down, but my (at the time) selfish, broken heart wanted nothing to do with it. I look back at that 24-year-old boy and feel a little ashamed of him. He didn’t know what he thought, and he didn’t know the years ahead would fill him with heartbreak worse than what he felt that day. He didn’t honor those dead the way he should have that day. He learned more later.
The last time I deployed to Iraq, from late 2006 to early 2008, was during a pretty pivotal phase of the war: the Surge. As an entire division’s worth of troops were added to the battlefield, casualties climbed. I was a fobbit – one of those folks who might cross the wire once if at all, and among many other duties, I was responsible for the Coalition Chronicle, the official magazine of Multinational Corps-Iraq, the three-star command responsible for conventional ground operations throughout the country.
Every month, I typed the ranks, names and units of those who’d died over the war’s previous 30 days for a two-page spread that went in the back of the magazine. As the Surge progressed and more and more men and women fell, I shrunk the font size of those names and added columns to those pages to make sure they’d all fit in those two pages. It was a depressing task, seeing all those faces and typing all those names, but one I was proud to fill. Someone had to do it, whether he remembered all those names and faces or not, and it was my honor to be that someone.
I also watched as, later in 2007, the numbers of names rapidly decreased. What had been six columns in near-agate type across two pages shrunk to two columns across a single page. In a small way, it felt like a victory, seeing the numbers of fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coalition allies dwindle in such a graphical way.
In addition to the warriors I was honored enough to know who never got to come home and know the fruits of their labors, these are some of the things I think about every year when Memorial Day comes around. Remembering is important. It is an honor and obligation that those of who do know those fruits must live up to every day, but even more so on the one day dedicated to it. So if you didn’t this year, do so next year, and every year after that, whether you’ve served or not. It’s important that this country’s citizens always remembers the brave men and women, volunteers and draftees both, who have put themselves between them and the wolves.