I get it. I used to do the same thing. I didn’t know any better and I didn’t want to be rude. When I saw someone in uniform or someone whom I knew served in the armed forces at any of the hundreds of Memorial Day events I’ve attended over the years I’d thank them for their service. Most would be polite and give me a nod or even a quick “just doing my job” sort of response, but every once in a while, I’d get a response that made me wonder what I did wrong.
That all changed in 2011.
I had no idea what I was truly getting myself into. Ever since I was young, I knew I would serve my country. I simply knew I would volunteer for war if the need presented itself. I have a long family legacy of military service. My dad served. My grandfather served. My great uncle, Mathew Fodi, was killed while serving as a Marine in Okinawa. From as young as I can remember, serving my nation was never in question. It was just a matter of time.
In 2011, the opportunity finally presented itself. After years of preparation between college, graduate school, and all the requisite military training, I was informed that there was a need for a chaplain in the heart of Iraq, Joint Base Balad.
There really wasn’t even a question. Erin knew this time would eventually come and signed off on the plan. On June 29, 2011, the wheels were up on my rotator and I was en route to what would become the single most formative experience of my life. War. On the frontlines.
When I arrived, I was given my assignment. I was attached to the Security Forces Group of the 332d AEW. Honestly, at first, it seemed like a cake job. I spent much of my day driving around the base (about the size of a medium sized city), visiting the security posts and check points offering whatever encouragement and support I could. It didn’t take long, however, before I recognized just how life-altering the experience would be.
I’ll never forget the first call. It came not more than a week into my time in country. I was asleep when my radio went off. The security forces group commander was looking for me, by name. His voice was rushed but emphatic. He needed me. More specifically, our airmen needed me. One of our convoys on patrol outside the wire had been hit by an IED and one, maybe two, of our guys were being rushed to the hospital.
Immediately jumping into my truck, I arrived at the hospital just as the chopper landed and the near lifeless bodies of two young 20-something kids, my fellow airmen, were being rushed down Heroes Highway.
Heroes Highway was the name given to the flag-draped entry into the JB Balad Emergency Room (picture credit: me). Every soldier, sailor, airmen, and marine injured in Iraq to the extent of needing emergency medical care was rushed through this entryway. What this flag and this space bore witness to throughout the war in Iraq is impossible to fully comprehend.
Today, I can recognize that I was in a state of shock. I had been trained for this moment. I read many books, took classes, even practiced drills with fellow chaplains on critical incident response. Yet, for what seemed like an eternity on that first call, I stood there motionless. Another chaplain, a far more seasoned chaplain than me, arrived shortly after me and I basically attached myself to his hip in order to survive. Without him, I’m not sure I would have ever moved. I might still be standing in that entryway. For the next few hours, the two of us went between the bedsides of these two airmen fighting for survival and the waiting area where dozens had gathered for word about their fellow airmen’s condition.
One of the airmen became stable enough to be medevaced to the hospital at Landstuhl, Germany. That all but guaranteed he was going to make it. The other was less fortunate and succumbed to his wounds in the desert.
With the exception of the shock, that first critical incident call would eventually become a common pattern of my time in Iraq. On a fairly regular basis, the calls for support came in. I got so used to it, I could practically predict when it would happen. The blaring of the klaxon, the unmistakable buzz of the C-RAM guns, the thud of exploding mortar rounds, followed by the sound of critical alerts being radioed eventually became the norm.
But, despite how strangely normal it became, there are still faces and names that haunt me. The young airman we lost that first night. Another who didn’t survive being hit by nearby celebratory AK-47 fire. A third whose CHU (trailer-like housing) was hit by a mortar round. Another hit by indiscriminate sniper fire. Then there was the platoon of soldiers ambushed while attempting to withdrawal high valued equipment from Iraq. And, perhaps the one which haunts me the most still to this day, the suicidal soldier who successfully took his own life while I and a team of security forces were outside of his CHU en route to disarm him. I’ll never forget the blood-smeared note he left behind apologizing for “the mess” he left behind and the mess he felt his life had become as a result of the war.
There were many others. We also treated local, Iraqi civilians in our hospital. The faces of the children my security forces squadrons brought in for emergency treatment still cross my mind on a regular basis.
When I came home, I wrestled with a guilt I never anticipated. Between hugging my wife for the first time in Baltimore and surprising my family at church that following Sunday, I had imagined nothing short of euphoria throughout it all. And, don’t get me wrong, I savored every moment. But there was always the nagging guilt. The shame that I got to come home while so many others didn’t. The desperate google searches and long hours on social networks trying to find people who were there, many of whom might still have been at the time.
I probably should apologize because ever since that experience (and others), I know I’ve been a bit preachy about the purpose of Memorial Day. It’s an annual soap box for me but I simply can’t seem to help it. Those faces. Those names. Those stories that ended right there in that god-forsaken desert. They’re the ones I remember on this day. They’re the ones I cannot get out of my mind. They’re the ones who must never be forgotten.
Don’t thank me for my service on Memorial Day. Don’t muddle this day with that, please. Remember the fallen. Remember the ones who never got to come home. Remember the ones who paid the price of our freedom and our comfortable lives with their blood. That’s the greatest expression of thanks you can give to those of us who served.