I saw their faces again the day our local paper decided to run a list of Washington-connected KIA — the military's way of shortening the phrase "Killed in Action" — from 2005. Members of the 1-25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, they were all stationed at Fort Lewis prior to deployment. Ft. Lewis features a military museum, thousands of housing units, a post exchange (the Army's version of a "big box" store), an artillery brigade, and two Stryker brigades.
Laid out neatly on my desk adjacent to the slapdash piles of notes and software and phones and pens, these faces looked back at me, unchanged from when I last saw them. These men weren't packing for Europe with the rest of their brigade. The brigade had returned from Iraq without them, and it would go to Germany without them.
There was a First Lieutenant from Ohio, remembered better by my gunner (now a Redmond cop) than by me. He was with the 73rd Engineers, a company that spent time with us out in Tal Afar before they were relieved by a National Guard unit that turned out to be a danger to itself and others.
A sharp-featured, intelligent young guy who graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy, the el-tee was commanding his vehicle when it struck an IED (improvised explosive device) so big it ignited the Stryker's diesel tanks. Still conscious after sustaining third-degree burns and traumatic injuries, he commanded relief personnel to attend to his sappers first. Two days later, he died of wounds. Although their tour was nearly over, 73rd had kept to the squadron commander's standards even as they made their re-deployment plans.
A picture of that lieutenant's .50-caliber gunner also sat there on my desk, in a little swirl of wallet-sized black-and-whites on grainy newsprint. Twenty-one years old, the chunky army specialist from Arkansas already had received two Purple Hearts for combat wounds, and a Bronze Star Medal with Valor device for his intrepidity during previous engagements. Because his wife was due to deploy as well, the specialist had re-enlisted with an option to do another tour in Iraq. He believed in his mission. He knew why he was there.
I think of these two men when my fellow Seattleites cluck and shake their heads over their decaf venti lattes, sure that the soldiers in Iraq haven't a clue what our greedy society has duped them into.The sergeant wasn't as young as either of them. He looked intently out from his grainy black and white picture with the astringent, pale-eyed gaze of a gunfighter.
I had talked with him one morning, post-mission, outside the FOB Sykes detainee facility. He'd done a deployment to OIF — Operation Iraqi Freedom — already but was brought over from another unit to share knowledge with the Stryker soldiers of the 1-25 brigade. When they deployed, he was left back on "rear D," having already done his bit in every way.
That changed when another soldier was wounded and evacuated, and he raised his hand to come over and ride as a gunner, manning the .50-caliber "Ma Deuce" with his eyes everywhere and his head and body out in the wind. Night and day, rain or roasting shine, he rode the amidships hatch of the insurgent's favorite bomb target like the moving bull's-eye in a phantasmagoric shooting gallery.
"You volunteered for a second tour?" I asked him. "You must like this more than I do."
The sergeant's gimlet eyes burned for a moment; then he looked at the ground. "I know how to do the job," he told me, chaining off a third Marlboro. "So yeah, I volunteered again."
"Job's not done yet, long as we have soldiers here."
Pretty gung-ho, I thought. "So, you staying in?"
"Hell, no," he said, shooting me a vehement glance. "Got a job lined up doing diesel repair." He named a business on Jackson Highway, down in Lewis County, south of Fort Lewis.
"Hey, I know that shop," I said. "They put a tranny in our line truck once, when we were running cable TV out of Onalaska."
"Yeah," he said. "They're pretty good guys, and my wife flat loves Washington. Good place to raise kids, ya know?"
Indeed, it is. Turned out he was from Enumclaw, a town of deer hunters and loggers and Boeing engineers, and I went to high school in Olympia, where hunters warily monitor the big game stalking the hallways of the legislature. The Northwest is a comfortable place to call home. We spent a moment thinking about that, there in front of a barbed wire gate holding 200 Iraqis wearing plastic sandals under the supervision of a dozen tired custodians half their age, holding large sticks.
We exchanged looks at our wallet pictures of kids. I asked the sergeant how old he was and, on receiving the answer, observed that he was old enough to know better.
"Yeah?" he grinned. "How the fuck old are you, staff?"
We both had shaky hands. I ascribed that to a long night, tepid thermos coffee, and bad smokes.
"I was out of the army for awhile," he said after a few drags. "Got back in after the towers."
"Yeah, me too. Sixteen year break in service doesn't count much, right?" We smiled, a little.
"So," he asked me, "you stayin' in?"
"Me?" I said, grinding out my cheap French cigarette. "I only do this shit one weekend a month."
That sergeant was two years older than his lieutenant, the day his lower body was sheared off and he bled out in the gunner's turret of two million bucks worth of sudden scrap metal.The gunfighter's platoon leader is in that photo on my desk, too. Short guy, slightly gnomish. He's grinning wide in the picture. He grinned a lot, told a lot of jokes, and was the butt of more than a few.
This was the lieutenant who pedaled around the base, rain or shine, the one we used to "attack salute" to see if we could make him crash his ten-speed. He never went down, but there were some close calls with gravel and mud, and he always laughed. I never saw him slack off, and I never saw him pissed off.
His sergeant took good care of him, and he took good care of his guys, and he was promoted from second lieutenant to a shiny new silver bar just a few days before he died in Tal Afar, burned to a bubbling soup ten minutes outside the wire.There are a few more pictures scattered across my messy desk: Griff, an intel staff sergeant; the private I never met who spent his last leave building a peace garden at the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church before he became the subject of our second memorial service at FOB Sykes; another sergeant who put off a golf scholarship to join his country's army, whose wife accepted but could never understand why he had to deploy to Iraq a second time. That sergeant turned 21 in Iraq.
He never drank a legal beer.There are those I remember but have no picture of, beyond the fuzzy focus of my mind: a staff sergeant from the Navy town of Bremerton, a short ferry ride from Seattle. He died on his unit's very last combat mission before redeployment and is now buried in Mt. Tahoma National Cemetery, his name graven on a stone. Likewise, his name is etched into our minds and onto an anodized aluminum bracelet that my gunner ordered in memory of our team's first hostile engagement.
A supply sergeant who could draw a smile from the coldest colonel.
A pair of scouts who died on their third day in Tal Afar before we ever got to know them, who left FOB Sykes on blacked-out choppers in the night. After the rotor noise folded into the quilted dark, their battalion commander gave an inspirational address to his green troops about what to tell their grandkids one day, about where they were and what they did during the Global War on Terror.
If they have grandkids, that is.