It seems like every year I see articles get posted about the meaning of Memorial Day and the appropriate respect which should be rendered on this yearly occasion marked by family get-togethers and cook-outs. The thing is, though, since I have been out of the military I have not met many people who don’t understand the meaning of this day. There are so many folks who still hold great reverence for this national day of remembrance.
So what is it, then? There must be some sort of gap, right? For better or for worse, there are a great many people who just don’t know someone who was killed in combat as a member of the Armed Services. The good thing is that we just haven’t faced a conflict in the last 50 years which has wrought that level of human loss. It’s a blessing, to be sure. Our military has shrunk and there is no draft. The only downside is that fewer people are exposed to sacrifice and, therefore, don’t have a name to call in pre-dinner blessings nor a memory for which to hold vigil in moments of silence sipping on a libation or sweet tea on this last Monday of May.
I just want to say that it’s completely okay. There should be no brow-beating about the meaning of Memorial Day or criticism of enjoying what may be a somber day to some. I do think it is important to remember these names. It’s why we have memorials with thousands of names engraved on them across our nation; why boy scouts line streets with crosses and flags on this weekend almost every year. If you don’t have a name, don’t feel bad, there’s no reason to. I do want to give you some names. Names of a few people I remember, that I knew. Please feel free to take them as your names as well. Let them be remembered for as long as we celebrate the memories of our fallen, which I hope is as long as our American experiment exists.
I think it’s easy to lead off with the fact that Emily was an extremely impressive human being. Track star, first minority female Brigade Cadet Sergeant Major, and top 10 percent of our class. I never learned until sitting down to write this that her grandfather was a Buffalo Soldier, and she had family members serve in WWII, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. What struck me most about Emily is that she was kind and caring. I never got to spend much time with her outside of school, but when your life and lifestyle are consumed by that experience, you don’t have to. I interacted with her plenty, and every time she met me with a smile, always asking me how I was. It wasn’t only me, she did the same with all of my friends. I think anyone would tell you she was going to do great things, that her name would be known. It was, though not in a way any of us would have wanted. Emily died in Iraq when an IED struck her vehicle. She became the first member of our class to die in combat, and the first female African-American officer in US history to die in combat.
I think this was the first one that hit me hard, though for entirely selfish reasons. Mike was closest friends with two of my friends and classmates, Eli Myers and Dom Isgro. God knows how many times they watched Red Dawn. We were all in the same company, and we were naively jealous of Mike because he was graduating a year ahead of us while we had to watch from the sidelines until after graduation and training. I always expected him to be great, for him to be one of the guys that was a general one day, and I know that he would have been. He never got that chance. He was already in Iraq with the 101st as I sat in Kuwait waiting for my turn to fly into Baghdad. The day before my flight, November 12th, 2006, the news came, Mike died from an IED. The next day, my birthday, I boarded a plane and flew into Baghdad International Airport. The entire flight I was in shock from the proximity of loss and how immediate that same threat was to me. That if I, like Mike, would end up forever 24 years old, having struggled for my last gasps of arid, dust-filled air away from anywhere I loved.
For a long time I “knew of” Phil, but I didn’t know him. That is, until we happened to have the same mentor, Colonel (then Captain) Mark Read. We started to get to know each other through that mentorship in both becoming infantry officers and the bible study we both took part in under Mark’s leadership. Phil was impactful because he was so many things which I was not; patient and mature, he waited for just the perfect moment to say something so insightful that it floored me. I admired him in many ways. He enlisted before coming to West Point, already having volunteered to be a paratrooper before he further committed to becoming an officer. He knew what it was to be one of the men he was to lead. Phil died while we were both in Iraq, in different places, when his unit was attacked by an enemy using grenades.
Tom… I don’t know a single person who knew Tom and does not think he’s probably the most genuine and good soul they have ever met. I knew Tom at school, I’m sure we shared beers and laughs over several occasions, but what stands out to me most is the time we spent together in Ranger School. By the time I got to the Mountain Phase, he was starting the phase again for the third time. For those of you who don’t know, that is a punishment I wouldn’t wish on those I mildly dislike (for those I hate, yeah, that’s a fair experience to wish). Think about your legs getting pounded from carrying a 60-90 lbs pack up and down mountains for ten days straight with minimal sleep and limited food, but three times in a row with very little communication with the outside world other than letters. When you show up and find a guy who is facing a third term of that, you’d expect to find a cynical jerk who would beg, borrow, or steal to get to graduation. Not Tom. He was eager. Eager to teach, talk about his failings and how you could avoid them, and help you out with whatever you needed. That’s just the guy he was. He also journaled his entire experience after graduation, even Ranger School, even up to the month he died. You can find it all if you search his name. He wanted to pass along his experiences, his life for others to learn. Tom was married to our classmate, Erika Noyes, and they even got to visit a few times in Iraq when she flew to his base. Tom died in a firefight in October of 2007. A young lieutenant who never got to pass on so many great lessons.
I met Matt the summer before our plebe (freshman) year during Beast Barracks (cadet basic training). I got in trouble for smiling too much, something I’ve always felt was an endearing trait, and Matt was a kindred spirit in that struggle. The other thing I remember is that I’ve never seen a man built like him move at that speed he did over long distances. He was short, muscular, and had pistons that propelled him to being a varsity athlete on both Cross Country and Track teams at West Point. He also graduated in the top 10 of our class, turning down the opportunity to compete for the Rhodes Scholarship. His reason? He wanted to be in the Infantry, he went to West Point to be in the Army and not be an academic. And he did. He breezed through Infantry officer training, Airborne and Ranger schools, and arrived at Chosen Company, 2-503d, 173d Airborne Brigade. He went with them to Afghanistan in 2007, to one of several remote valleys in the western mountains of the Hindu Kush. It was there he died in November of that year, when his patrol was ambushed after attending a staged meeting. The last place he would ever smile, or laugh, or pick someone up when they’re down because he could, because someone needs to.
I was incredibly lucky when I arrived at West Point because my brother was entering his firstie (senior) year. It was amazing, the first time we were able to be at the same school since elementary years. I didn’t know how lucky I was, though, because you don’t just get to have one brother when yours is an upperclassman, but several. Mark was one of those brothers. He always stopped to ask me how I was doing and cared about the answer. In a place where you feel like every next person you meet might be the person who will make your life hell, at least in that first year, such a gesture sure does mean a lot. It wasn’t just that year, though, he asked about me and I got updates about him. In fact, Mark was one of the reasons I chose to go into the Infantry instead of following my Dad and brother as aviators. Mark was killed by an IED in Afghanistan while on deployment from Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany. A fact which stayed ever present in my mind as I trained my own soldiers there very soon after in preparation for our own deployment to Afghanistan.
Paul was always someone I felt like I met way too late. I always recognized him from school, but our paths never truly crossed until a course we all had to attend as Captains to be company commanders. He hosted a weekly poker night that my roommates and I always attended. It was full of some of the best people I was ever around then and have been since. Paul was just the guy you wanted around, pretty much always. He was game for whatever everyone was doing, always had a smile and a laugh, and was never an asshole (when you’re around a bunch of 20-something junior officers that are all super competitive, it’s a big deal). After our course, he went to the 82nd and became a company commander, deploying to Afghanistan in 2009. Paul and one of his soldiers died on January 9th, 2010, when an IED exploded on one of their foot patrols. I was just under a month into my own Afghanistan deployment.
I went to the same course with Dan as a Captain as with Paul, but I knew Dan from well before then. My third summer at West Point didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I failed a class my yuk (sophomore) year and had to go to summer school to catch up. I learned a lot about myself that summer, but I was still depressed, down on myself, and unconfident. The last half of my summer I spent as cadet cadre leader for what used to be the second summer of West Point training, called Camp Buckner. It was easily the most challenging of the four cadre options you had to choose from to fill the requirement due to the field time and leadership challenges. When I met Dan, he was one of my leaders there. He was just coming off of pretty harsh, but fair, punishment of the great H-2 Hammer fiasco of 2003. He was the leader when an alcohol-fueled extravaganza of bad-decisions which caused an entire company of cadets to be dispersed to the rest of the brigade. His own graduation was to be delayed to the next year. Needless to say, our mental states were synced. His cynicism was guru-like. He channeled all the emotions I was feeling in a way I had never seen, as fuel to embrace where he was and push through it. When we linked back up, it was as friends and peers. Dan went with Paul to the 508th, but to a sister battalion. He then departed on his third deployment in four years. Dan died with one of his soldiers from wounds inflicted by an IED 20 days after Paul’s disturbingly similar downfall. Dan’s death was heart-breaking, and with Paul’s more present than most others as I mourned them while commanding my own company in the same country.
There are soldiers in every unit that every single leader and fellow soldier wants to have in their formation. Beachnaw was that guy. The only thing that stopped a kid like this was himself, and that didn’t happen often. He even earned “Top Gun” in his Sniper School class. We were in 2nd Battalion, 503d together. He always smiled, I mean always. You’re training in the rain and mud in freezing temperatures? He’s ear-to-ear with a smartass remark to boot. He was a member of the Scout Platoon and they stayed extremely active while we were deployed to Kunar Province, Afghanistan. On one particular mission the platoon came under heavy fire. Beachnaw was hit in the shoulder first in the beginnings of the firefight and refused to see a medic. He continued to fight and was hit a second time, yet he persisted to fire back at the enemy. He was hit a third and final time. He died on that hill in the Ganjgal Valley that day. The first of our deployment, the one that hit everyone, and hard.
Go have a great time with your family. Enjoy each other and this magnificent country we live in. I promise it is what each and every one of these people and the over 1.1 million service members killed in conflicts since our nation started would want you to do.