Home Front

Small Town Heroes

DSC09255June 21, 1918, Private Thomas Bennett, a Marine rifleman from tiny Dallas, Oregon, filed into the front lines with his brothers of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. For almost a month, the American 2nd Division had fought a brutal, close-range battle against the German Army on the north bank of the Marne River. The fresh American troops had blunted a major German offensive, kept the enemy from getting a foothold across the Marne, and played a significant role in saving Paris from coming under attack.

Now, the Americans had gone on the offensive. Inexperienced and using outdated tactics, the 2nd Division suffered catastrophic losses trying to push the Germans back from the Marne.

Thomas and the rest of 3/5 saw the horrific results of this fighting in a former hunting preserve known as Belleau Wood. The once-stunning beauty of this forest had been utterly destroyed by artillery barrages, which turned the woods into a craterscape of blasted tree trunks, shell holes and rotting corpses. Clouds of flies buzzed across the battlefield where the dead of both sides lay in the summer sun, sometimes atop each other in mute testimony to the ferocious hand-to-hand combat that raged over this small stretch of the lines.28-0823a-1

Thomas’ battalion relieved the 7th Infantry Regiment, which had gone into Belleau Wood only a week before and had already lost a quarter of its strength.  A final regimental assault on the 20th left the outfit in such dire shape that it had to be pulled out of the lines.

On the 23rd, Thomas Bennett and 3/5 were ordered over the top by a chain of command convinced that only a few Germans remained on the northern edge of Belleau Wood. Denied artillery support, 3/5 rose from its firing pits, craters and trenches seven hundred strong in four waves. As the front ranks fell, the men behind them rushed forward to take their place.379a1c58b9e111ea6b27f415a55a5cc5

They advanced over broken, rocky ground covered with the dead of previous assaults and ran straight into a layered German defensive line complete with machine gun nests that swept the Marines with a deadly crossfire.

In three hours, the battalion lost a hundred and forty men. Pinned by the machine guns, the battalion crawled forward over ground so rocky they could not dig in. As more men fell, the battalion’s surviving officers ordered the the gaps filled. To do it, the men in the succeeding waves had to crawl over their wounded and dying friends.

The attack failed.Hospital-Corpsmen-at-Belleau-Wood-June-1918

The American command, now aware the Germans were still in Belleau Wood in strength, prepared to pulverize the defenders with one of the most concentrated artillery barrages of the war. Starting at 0300 on June 25, 1918, two regiments of American and French heavy artillery pounded a two hundred meter section of the German lines. Machine gun nests were smothered by high explosive shells. Bunkers and bomb-proof dugouts were buried or blown to pieces. The bombardment continued for fourteen straight hours.

At five in the afternoon, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines charged forward in a loose skirmish line. They crossed through a surreal battlespace filled with charred and smoking tree trunks, tangles of branches, vines, shell holes–all littered with the fallen. One Marine later wrote, “I almost went mad before I got out of that wood.”

The attack moved forward with a vengeance. Instead of being dispirited by the casualties on the 23rd, the Marines were angry and wanted payback. They pushed forward behind a moving curtain of artillery fire–a tactic known as a rolling barrage–advancing a hundred meters every three minutes. Along the way, they encountered scattered pockets of Germans whose lines had been shattered by the artillery barrage. Some surrendered, but others fought to the death. One Marine got lost and stumbled alone into a German position, where he convinced several English-speaking officers that an entire regiment was advancing on them. The German officers and about eighty-five men surrendered to him on the spot.belleauwood

The main part of the battalion reached some high ground, fought their way up a shell-scarred knoll under mortar, grenade and rifle fire. As they reached the top, 3/5’s surviving Marines let out a long war cry and charged down the far slope into the German trenches at the base.  Desperate Germans, shell-shocked and dispirited by the bombardment, found themselves locked in hand-to-hand combat with Marines in full fury. They died in place, ran away or surrendered.M-Belleau-leadspread-1

The fighting raged past sunset and well into the night. The following morning, 3/5’s commander, Major Maurice Shearer, reported the Marines now held all of Belleau Wood.

As a result of the battle, the French government awarded both the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments with a Fourragere, a unique cord worn to this day by each member of these two units. Since Belleau Wood,  the Fourragere has become a sacred reminder to generations of Marines of their heritage and sacrifice in the defense of France during World War I.

In three days of fighting, 3/5 lost almost half its men killed, wounded or missing. Private Thomas Bennett was among those who went missing during that last attack.  His fate remained unknown, and it was not until October that the War Department sent word back to his sister in Oregon that Thomas was MIA.WWI-1250x650

His remains were located in January 1919 and he was declared officially dead. Instead of being laid to rest with his brother Marines in the Aisne-Marne Cemetery,  his family brought him home. He was buried in a simple Soldier’s grave in a little cemetery just outside of Dallas in Kings Valley, a fallen local son in a battle memorialized forever as one of the fiercest the Corps ever fought.

World War I hit Oregon particularly hard. At a time when the state had less than a quarter of the population of New York City, thirty-three Oregon Marines were killed, mostly during that month of fighting in the summer of 1918.  On the day Thomas was declared missing in action, over fifty other Oregonians were declared killed or seriously wounded.

Thomas’s hometown of Dallas, with a population of about two thousand seven hundred, lost more than a dozen men in France, with at least twice as many wounded in action.DSC01960.jpg

Those deaths devastated this close-knit, patriotic community. Dallas was one of the earliest settled towns in Oregon, and a pioneering spirit pervaded through its generations long after the first post office was established in 1852 and the town officially incorporated in 1874.  It was a hard-working, blue collar kind of place where the citizens donated $17,000 in the 1870s so that a rail line could be built through the town. Dallas became the county seat as a result, and a beautiful courthouse became the centerpiece of its tiny downtown.

For a century, Dallas was home to Willamette Industries.  Men of Thomas Bennett’s generation worked the company’s sawmill and provided well for their families. After the Great War ended, Dallas became home to one company of Oregon National Guardsmen. A generation later, the sons of the World War I vets would see combat in New Guinea and the Philippines with the 41st Infantry Division. They returned to work in the mills alongside their dads.

That changed in the 1980s when the timber industry declined throughout Oregon. Willamette Industries survived for another twenty years until it was acquired in a hostile take-over in 2002, just as a new generation of Dallas sons graduated high school and entered the post-9/11 world and workforce. Those mill jobs soon disappeared–the new corporation closed the last mill down in 2009.

Ian_GradIan Tawney was one of those young men who graduated from Dallas High into that uncertain future in 2003.  In a lot of ways, Ian was a typical small town American kid. In school, he was known as a friend to everyone, one of those students who bridged cliques and was widely admired.  He was a hunter, an outdoorsman who loved to snowboard in the Cascades during winters and developed a passion for motorcycles. He was also a cat and dog lover, having two of the former and one of the latter.

He also had a classic small town love affair. Ashley Stevenson met Ian when they were in pre-school together. They went all through the Dallas school system together as friends. Later, they ended up working at the same retirement home and a romance blossomed. They married in 2005, a few months after Ian joined the Marine Corps.DSC_0151

Ian served with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in Iraq, deployed four times overseas. He crossed decks to 3/5 Marines so he could go to Afghanistan with the unit in September, 2010 during the Surge despite the fact that Ashley was pregnant and they’d just bought their first house.

“If you’re part of the varsity team, why sit on the bench?” Ian used to say.

Their parting was unusually difficult. Though Ian had been away from home on four previous deployments, Afghanistan was seething with violence as surging American troops fought their way into Taliban strongholds. This fifth deployment was sure to be a tough one.

In the predawn darkness at Pendleton, the two Oregonians kissed each other goodbye. Ian joined his brothers aboard a bus and started the long journey to Helmand Province.tawneyjpg-05a9f34adc421242

That fall, the British and the U.S. Marines were locked in battle with the Taliban and their allies throughout Helmand Province.   Third Battalion, 5th Marines joined the fight to clear the Taliban from Sangin, a Dallas-sized town that lay beside the Helmand River.

The Marine units in this area faced some of the most skilled insurgents Americans have ever encountered. They created entire minefields with homemade explosives with utterly devious methods of detonation. They had seen American engineers clearing their minefields with metal detectors, so they changed their tactics and created pressure plates from two slabs of Styrofoam with just small metal contacts on either one. When buried in the sand and stepped on, the two contacts would touch, completing a circuit to a bomb emplaced some distance away.  To make it even more difficult to detect and disarm, the batteries used to power these bombs were buried deeply in separate locations.darkhorse_general_04_wide-0927039dd481749b36b084aefe3bca73248a3c38-s1600-c85

Marines of 3/7 had replaced British commandos around Sangin earlier in the summer. Daily, they’d encountered the enemy in fierce firefights, ambushes and IED attacks.  Now, 3/5 stepped in to help break the Taliban hold on Sangin. They came under fire almost immediately. Taliban sniped at them from loopholes in walls, laid bombs in canals and roads even as close to fifty meters from their base.

On October 13, 2010, 3/5 officially took control of the Sangin battlespace.  That day, four Marines from Ian’s unit were killed when a roadside bomb destroyed their vehicle.  The next day, a dismounted patrol ran into a homemade minefield, and three more Marines perished in blasts.  In its first two days of official operations, they’d lost seven men killed in action to these deadly bombs.

IMG_2643Meanwhile, to the south, at FOB Bastion/Leatherneck, the Marines based there went out on patrols and convoy duty to support the operations around the Helmand River Valley.  Leading the way for these Marine columns was a tiny company of Oregon National Guard engineers….from Dallas.  The 162 Engineers had spent the year driving Mad-Max-esque armored vehicles around Helmand looking to either detonate or destroy roadside bombs and mines. By October, when they were getting ready to return home, they were down to about eighty engineers. Those who remained were hardened, battle tested veterans. One had his vehicle blown up by IED’s five times.  Another stepped on a pressure plate home made mine, but the device malfunctioned and failed to explode.IMG_3118

Kent “Hat Trick” Hermanson perhaps had one of the toughest experiences in the 162 Engineers. Kent was a North Dakota native who moved to Indepndence, just south of Dallas, after marrying an Oregonian. In one difficult night, Kent’s MRAP (armored vehicle) took three IED strikes. The blasts affected Kent’s hand eye coordination so severely that when given a test, he scored in the bottom seven percentile. It was weeks before he regained his coordination, but Kent kept agitating to go back out on missions. He finally did, and when asked why, he nonchalantly replied, “It is what we’re here to do. Besides the platoon was short men.”IMG_2649

I arrived at FOB Leatherneck to embed with 162 Engineers in time for their final Afghan mission. The day I joined the unit–and ran across some old friends from the Dallas area (I live in Independence), 3/5 Marines lost another man. Lance Corporal James Boelk was killed by another roadside bomb.

Ian_TawneyThe next day, Ian was leading his squad on a patrol and was killed by yet another IED. For everyone back home who loved Ian, October 16, 2010 became a dividing line in their lives. Once the contact teams with their chaplains knocked on their doors, the family was changed forever by the grief.

The great lesson of my own life, after we lost Independence’s Taylor Marks in Iraq in 2009, was to learn that this sort of grief never heals. You never really recover. You just learn to grow around the pain and carry on in their memory. But nothing is ever the same.306273_2047422068476_1350649_n

A few days later, I went out on that last clearance mission with 162.  We rolled through towns and villages in massive, RV-sized armored vehicles. Mine had a metal cage bolted onto the hull as additional anti-rocket protection. Inside the enormous vehicle, I peered out through those metal bars and felt like a prisoner on wheels, watching these Afghans try and carry on with their daily lives.IMG_3013

We crossed the Helmand River, turned north and drove for hours. Eventually, the engineers dismounted and set off on foot with metal detectors, sweeping a stretch of ground near a special operations outpost that the Taliban had nearly surrounded with these homemade mines.IMG_3017

Later that night, as we drove home, a farmer rolled over one of those IED’s with his tractor, killing him instantly. The next morning, one of the 162 officers told me that a Marine unit that had gone up to the same area to sweep for mines. Two men were hit by blasts and lost their legs.

A few days later, while comparing notes with a British journalist who had been embedded with a Royal Engineer unit, I learned that in an area just declared clear, an engineer stepped on a mine and blew up right in front of him.  They were in the same section of the valley as we were, just a day or two later.IMG_3272

I remained in Afghanistan until November. I missed Ian’s return to Oregon and the ceremony as he was laid to rest in the Dallas Cemetery. His 5th Marine brothers took turns placing their own Fourragere atop Ian’s coffin as a final homage to one of their own.

As the community honored him with a park and a street named for him, I thought a lot about 3/5 and the 162 Engineers and all the blood, treasure and trauma that went into defeating the Taliban around Leatherneck and Sangin that fall. It was a miracle that all our Dallas engineers came home from that deployment, the only route clearance unit not to lose a man during the Surge. IMG_3187

So many lives lost. In eight days of October, 2010, 3/5 suffered ten Marines killed in action. Fifteen more died  before the battalion came home in early 2011.  Twenty-five killed, a hundred and eighty-four wounded, thirty four of them amputees. That was the cost to the battalion in what became the bloodiest, most difficult deployment of any Marine unit in the Afghan War.

Fighting around Sangin raged for years. At one point, it looked like the Allies had turned a corner. The Afghan National Army patrolled the streets, the belts of minefields in and around the city were gone, and parts of town returned to an almost-pre-war normal daily life.

Almost. After handing the area over the Afghan government, the Taliban re-emerged and nearly took Sangin in 2015. They were stopped by a mix of ANA, British Commandos and U.S. special operations troops, well supported with aircraft.  Ultimately, though, Sangin was captured by the Taliban in March 2017, completing their return to the Helmand River Valley.IMG_2661

On July 4, 2019, the San Francisco Giants farm team here in Oregon, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, honored Sergeant Ian Tawney at a pre-game ceremony that included Ian’s parents, his siblings and friends from all over the country.  The moment was part of the team’s long history of honoring veterans and the veteran community, something that Jerry Howard undertakes every year for the Volcanoes. Jerry is part of the front office staff, an Air Force veteran of the 1960s who has been in baseball as a player, umpire, coach or as front office staff for nearly sixty years.DSC08845-2

To honor our small town Oregon heroes, Jerry Howard pays the expenses for this 4th of July tradition out of his own pocket. Every year for the last decade, he’s put around three thousand dollars of his own money into ensuring that our men and women we’ve lost overseas can be honored on the baseball diamond during our nation’s birthday.  Since I came home from Afghanistan, Jerry is the most noble human being I’ve encountered.DSC08820

The ceremony was a tear-jerker. I’d met Jerry and talked to Ian’s father ahead of time to get permission to photograph the event and write this article. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional effect it had on me.  I stood on the field, shooting photographs of the ceremony with my son, Ed (a budding photojournalist), and watched old friends from the National Guard pay homage to our fallen Marine.DSC09315

There were so many scars and half-healed wounds on the field that day.  The Gold Star mom of Tyrone Woods walked to home plate between ranks of saluting veterans. A twenty-year Navy veteran and SEAL, he was killed in the Bengazi attack of 2012.  Chris Sieber and his veteran’s motorcycle group came to honor Ian. Chris had been in Iraq with Taylor Marks and Earl Werner when they were killed in 2009. He carries their names on his left forearm. His way of honoring his lost brothers.DSC09320-2

Ian’s family walked from third base to home plate between the ranks of saluting veterans. His parents, John and Theda Tawney, walked hand-in-hand together. As they stood at home plate, they never let go of each other.  Not once.DSC09624

One of his brothers sang a song written for Ian’s daughter. As he waited for the music to be piped over the stadium loud speakers, I heard an elderly man in a seat behind us speaking loudly on his cell phone. “I can’t hear you. I’m at an event…..I can’t hear you!” He kept saying.DSC09744

I grimaced at the disrespect. If the family heard him, they showed no sign of it.

When the memorial was complete and the ceremony ended, Ian’s family made their way off the field. I watched his parents, side by side, walk away from this special moment and could not help but marvel at their strength. What extraordinary grace from a family so grievously hurt by this war.DSC09210

DSC09275DSC09311DSC09189DSC09419DSC09849DSC00237The Sunday after the ceremony,  I returned to the little cemetery in King’s Valley in the car we’d used to escort Taylor up to Willamette National where he was laid to rest. I got out and wandered in search of Ian’s own resting place.  As I did, I passed Private Bennett’s headstone. Worn and weathered by a hundred years of Oregon rain, it stands watch like a lonely sentinel over a long-forgotten Marine from a war long out of the public mind.  I paused to take a photograph, then realized I was being watched.DSC01935

Three deer had made their way into the cemetery and were eyeing me curiously. These beautiful creatures here at a place where so many of our local vets have chosen to be laid to rest–it was a moment for me. One that contrasted deeply with my own memories of Helmand Province. Or the experiences of Private Bennett and the rest of 3/5 in the shattered forest of Belleau Wood.DSC02127

A minute later, I continued my search for Ian’s grave. I walked up and down the gentle slopes, pausing here and there until at last, I found him, surrounded by tokens of love. Flowers and flags adorned his marker, which stood on a slope overlooking Private Thomas Bennett’s headstone. One 3/5 Marine covering another, a hundred years apart, even in final repose.

I said a prayer for peace, turned and walked back to the GTO.DSC02102

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Afghanistan, Home Front, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shrek’s Mom

DSC04822On June 25, 2019, David Bellavia received the Medal of Honor for actions in Fallujah in November 2004. David is the sole living recipient of the MOH from the Iraq War, the others were awarded posthumously.

David and I worked together on his memoirs back in 2006-07. We were under such a tight deadline that we never met while writing together. All our contact was over the phone, and an occasional e-mail. Nevertheless, David quickly became one of the closest friends I’ve ever had. Funny, heartfelt, he has a sharp wit and the knack for turning a phrase. He’d give the shirt off his back to help a friend.

At David’s invitation, I flew to D.C. to be there for the ceremony.  After House to House was finished, we’ve remained friends, kicking around follow-up book ideas that never quite fit. Along the way, we’d gone through a whole lot of life–the great stuff like kids being born, and hard stuff like my family going through a series of crazy medical challenges. We were always there for each other.  So yeah, meeting David was a decade overdue.

The first night the guests arrived, the Sergeant Major of the Army held a reception at our hotel.  I walked in knowing only David and our agent, Jim Hornfischer. As I looked around the room, neither was there.  I started to feel very out of place.  DSC04158

Back in the day, I could work a room. I was an extrovert who loved meeting new people. That was before Katrina hit New Orleans, before Taylor Marks, and Chris Kilcullen were killed, and before I went to Afghanistan. All that made me a late-in-life introvert, more at ease deep in the Oregon woods with my Jordanian dog and swimming cat than around strangers with Medal of Honors around their necks or stars on their shoulder boards.

I tried to make some small talk, seeking out those in uniform who wore the 3rd Infantry Division insignia. I’d stuffed a pair of 3rd ID cufflinks in my coat pocket as a reminder of the people I got to know in Afghanistan.  They remain genuinely the greatest humans I’ve ever met, and as I introduced myself to the Rock of the Marne vets in attendance that night, I restated that fact many times. DSC04146

Jim came into the room with his family, and I tried not to be a social leech, clinging to their coattails as we were surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Jim can work a room, though, and he was soon out meeting everyone he could, shaking hands and bantering with copious charisma and charm. He really is amazing to watch in such a setting. I couldn’t keep up, so I drifted off, taking photos and generally hiding behind my camera to mask my discomfort.DSC04166

A moment later, David and his family entered the room. As he made his way around, shaking hands and bear-hugging those who came to share this incredible experience with him, I found myself pulled along behind him, watching with a keenly stupid smile on my face. He looked so happy to see everyone, and the affection for him in the room was genuinely profound. Here was a man whose heart and simple kindness withstood so many trials–both in Iraq and here at home during election seasons.  It was a testament of strength that both were not crushed by bitterness or anger.DSC04244

Eventually, he spotted me. He broke away from a couple of people congratulating him and gave me the manhug of all manhugs.  His voice broke. I started to cry. Around freaking generals and the sergeant major of the army. Finally, after all we’d been through, we’d met at last. And it was like we’d always been around each other. Top five life moment right there.

When he was waylaid a moment later by another well-wisher, I bolted for the bathroom to pull myself together. When I returned, I felt awkward and out of place again, trying to make small talk around a standing table with Jim and another MOH recipient.

Then Jim introduced me to Merrilee Carlson– “Shrek’s Mom.”  It took a moment for the Shrek thing to sink in. Then I remembered David telling me about this burly Minnesotan who’d been a favorite of the Ramrods.  His name was Michael Carlson, but everyone called him Shrek.1978576_1067891459904424_6384224834431978227_o

With a sinking heart, I realized Shrek was one of the Soldiers killed in a Bradley roll-over in January 2005.  It had happened after Fallujah, and we hadn’t written about it in House to House. We’d talked about a sequel that covered the rest of the deployment, but we’d never made it happen.

I’ve been writing for twenty-three years, and I’ve encountered every manner of response from people once they learn I’ve written a book about their friends or units. That we didn’t write about her son made me fear Shrek’s mom would chew me out, as has happened before.

Instead, a remarkable thing happened. We bonded. Instantly. As we talked, I braved a mention of our own loss here in Independence–Taylor Marks–and how devastating his death was to me personally.  “You never get over it, you just g10945661_1053955451298025_3679894944703437563_orow around the pain.”–that is a life truth grieving for Taylor drilled into me.

From that moment on, Shrek’s mom and I went everywhere and did pretty much everything together for the rest of the MOH week. She took me under her wing, showed me the ropes at the White House, got me a seat on an aisle during the ceremony so I could get a clear photograph of David and the President. She even told one of the White House ushers to (politely) buzz off when we were asked to move.  Seriously, Merrilee Carlson is a force of nature, part avenging angel, part energizer bunny, friend to everyone and clearly in charge. After her son was killed, she went on to found and run a non-profit that honors and supports Gold Star families. DSC04905

The day after the ceremony, David gave a speech at the Pentagon. Afterward, we headed back to the hotel with plenty of time left in the day. Merrilee, Michele Lawson (Ramrod Scott Lawson’s sister-in-law) and I went to Arlington to visit Shrek.  Merrilee brought him fresh flowers, a small bottle of Jack Daniels, and a cigar. Shrek loved cigars.DSC05788

As we stood beside his grave, in a section of Arlington dominated by Iraq War fallen, Merrilee told us the story of how her son died.  On January 25, 2005, he was killed along with four other members of TF-2-2 when an Iraqi roadway collapsed under the weight of their Bradley Fighting Vehicle and it tumbled into a canal.

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When Taylor was killed in Iraq in August, 2009, the news destroyed me.  I slept-walked through life, numb with pain for years. It wasn’t until 2014 that I began to make my peace with his death in Baghdad.  Merrilee had endured far worse than I had. And yet, she handled it with grace, reaching out to help others and run an organization that did a lot of good for grieving families. She turned a devastating blow into a beautiful positive, never losing her own pain, but rising above it to give back to a community and country she understands and loves. 231185_1554810130556_8171780_n

It made me realize how selfish I’d been. Instead of reaching out, I turned within and lost sight of everything but my own anguish and guilt over Taylor’s loss. I didn’t find a way to give back. I just broke.  Merrilee’s strength left me in awe. It is the kind of strength, on a macro level, that has held this country together for generations despite every loss and hardship imaginable.

As dusk approached, we went to dinner down by the White House, the three of us chatting and getting to know each other better.  From Michele, I learned that Scott had died in an accident in 2013.  He’d been with David in Fallujah, was wounded in the house David re-entered on the night of his 29th birthday. Michele was there at David’s invitation to represent the Lawson family.DSC05890

After dinner, we wandered from the 1st Infantry Division Memorial down the Mall. We stopped at the World War II Memorial, then experienced the Lincoln Memorial together. I’d last been there in 1982, and never at night.

DSC05867I’d gone to D.C. to finally meet an old friend face-to-face and see the President award him the Medal of Honor. To my astonishment, at the end of the trip I came home warmed by the knowledge that I’d just met two more friends who surely will be in my life for years to come.DSC06335-2

Back in Oregon a few days later on my daughter’s 21st birthday, we went down to the beach. It was crowded and sunny and people were playing all around us. We hiked the dunes, took photos and explored the tide pools. On our way back to the car, I caught myself stopping and chatting with strangers. My kids glanced at each other. What is up with dad? When they watched me step into a chartered bus and ask the driver, “Where we going?”  They glanced at each other again. They waited as the bus driver and I talked for a bit, then I bounced out into the street and returned to our car.DSC07112

“What’s with you?” the kids asked me.

I didn’t know what they meant.

“You’re talking to everybody! What the hell?” DSC07126

I thought I was just being me. But I was being the me before all the heaviness of life turned me inward. With a start, I realized they were too young to remember the old extrovert me who in high school used to sing in public and never met a stranger, only friends I’d yet to be introduced to.

“What’s happened to you?” my son asked.

“Shrek’s mom,” I replied.

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Categories: Home Front, Iraq War 2003-2010 | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

David Bellavia’s Medal of Honor Moment

DSC04824-2In the spring of 2006, literary agent, author and historian Jim Hornfischer introduced me to David Bellavia.  David had recently left the Army and was settling into civilian life–sort of.  Two months after we started talking every day on the phone, he returned to Iraq as an embedded reporter, traveling all over Anbar Province before coming home to work on a book together with me.

When we first spoke, he made it clear he wanted to write a “Themoir”–the story of his beloved platoon mates from Task Force 2-2 during their year in Iraq, which included heavy fighting against Shia militias in Diyala Province as well as during Second Fallujah. From the outset, he displayed a selflessness and determination to ensure his brother Ramrods would get the recognition they deserved for their service during an incredibly difficult deployment.

This is my kind of guy.  David and I quickly became very close. We sat talking late at night, each of us drinking whiskey, swapping stories and getting to know each other as we wrote the proposal. Eventually, House to House found its way to Free Press, and we delivered the manuscript in early 2007.

This week, David received the Medal of Honor from President Trump at a White House ceremony. Eight other MOH warriors attended the event, as did Representative Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL wounded in Afghanistan in 2012. DSC04773

David, being David, turned the spotlight away from himself. After the President gave him the Medal of Honor, David asked if his fellow Ramrods and the Gold Star families of TF-2-2 could come up on stage.

“How many people are we talking about?” President Trump whispered.

“All of them, Mr. President.”

President Trump considered this pretty radical breach in tradition and protocol before saying, “Yeah, okay!”

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The Ramrods clustered forward, filling the stage and packing in so tightly that Michael “Shrek” Carlson’s mom lost her footing and started to fall off.  Trump quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her back from the edge. A moment later, he leaned into her ear and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

The Ramrods of TF-2-2 smiled for the cameras and celebrated this moment in the White House exactly as they had fought in Fallujah:  together as a team of men whose bonds transcend mere blood.  David made that happen. Since coming home, enduring many hard lessons in politics and in the public eye, David Bellavia has been one of the most gracious and selfless human beings I’ve ever known.

Seeing such a man receive our highest award for valor was one of the most significant moments of my life.  It is a reminder that with patience, sometimes the right thing will happen, and the good guys get a win. DSC04808

 

 

Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, Iraq War 2003-2010, Uncategorized, Warrior Memories | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cold War Chemical Weapons Depot Today

AO5Y8539Out in the Eastern Oregon desert, the U.S. Army built a massive facility in 1941 as part of its pre-war expansion program. Called the Umatilla Army Depot, this bleak spot in the middle of the desert, not far from the Columbia River served as a storage facility for ammunition and basic supplies for units in the Pacific.  During the war, Umatilla housed a 30 days supply of ammunition for all the U.S. Army divisions deployed against the Japanese.

To safely keep ordnance stored, the Army built hundreds of concrete igloos that still exist today. They’re like gigantic vaults with massive metal doors. Some are surrounded by berms or revetments for additional protection in case of an accidental explosion.

AO5Y8552During the Cold War, the Army chose Umatilla as a storage site for about twelve percent of the United States’ stockpile of chemical weapons. Everything from blister agents to VX gas was stored in L Block, which was sort of a base within the base complete with its own security fence and check points.  Those weapons were destroyed at a purpose-built incinerator built next to L Block in the 1990s. The work lasted for years, finally finishing up in 2011.

The base was subsequently handed over to the Oregon National Guard, which transformed it into the home of the Regional Training Institute. Today,  the ammunition igloos are used as high ground in field exericses by the RTI’s MOST classes and NCO courses. A rifle range has been added as well.  It is an amazing way to re-purpose a World War II era base, and ongoing work has upgraded the base’s new capabilities with such things as a small MOUT site.

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My OPFOR group of volunteers, the 973rd Civilians on the Battlefield, provides training support to the RTI’s NCO classes. We’re their bad guys, defending the MOUT site, executing simulated ambushes, moving to contact, etc. Being out there among the many abandoned WWII-era buildings is one of the most unusual experiences we’ve had. We’ve supported the RTI since 2008 when the courses were conducted at Camp Rilea on the Oregon coast.

This last week, we were on the ground at Umatilla again, working with the awesome NCO’s and officers of the Regional Training Institute to help make the class experience in the field as realistic as possible. The photos here were taken during the final phases of an NCO training course. We’re looking forward to many more days with the RTI on the ground at Umatilla, rolling as their OPFOR! After ten years, the experiences on the range with these incredible and dedicated citizen-Soldiers remains among the most meaningful of my life.

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Scenes from Katrina

New Orleans, September 2005. Some of my moments in the city, Post-Hurricane Katrina, when I was embedded with 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, Oregon National Guard. We were in North-Central, based out of the NO Baptist Seminary on Gentilly.

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2-162 used commandeered, abandoned city busses to move around New Orleans.

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Hundred and three degrees. On patrol in a north-central neighborhood still partially flooded at the end of September.

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SSG Jason Obersinner moments before he was evacuated and underwent emergency surgery following an injury to his arm while on a patrol.

 

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CASEVAC at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary.

 

 

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Eighty percent of the pets in New Orleans died after Katrina. They were abandoned by their owners, many left locked inside steaming hot houses or apartments. Some, like this dog, were chained to their front porches. The NOPD tried to arrest the animal rescue volunteers we met who came into the city to save as many as they could.

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Urge the Heroes

My Friends,

 

Four years ago today, a friend of mine was murdered in the line of duty. Chris Kilcullen was a police officer and negotiator for the Eugene, Oregon police department. I worked with him in training exercises many times from 08-11 and found him to be a remarkable man. I wrote this article in April 2011 after I got home from his memorial service.

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The new University of Oregon basketball arena is fantastic. No expense was spared to give the Ducks a special home in what had been the site of Williams Bakery when I attended the school in the 1980’s. I remember waking up in my freshman dorm to the scent of fresh baked bread that first fall away from home, a smell that today can take me right back to those early days of semi-adult freedom and all the joy I felt at having the opportunity to study history.IMG03985-20110429-1633

It was an odd homecoming for me. I had not been to the campus since returning from Afghanistan. Frankly, last fall I did not think I would survive my time in theater and never expected to see again the school that became my first home in Oregon. Now that I am back, I never expected to return to it in the way I had to this afternoon.

In the arena’s lobby, I stared at the words printed on the main wall, superimposed over enlarged photos of past Duck athletes in action.

                                                Urge the Heroes

IMG03988-20110429-1646    Being a middle aged Duck, I recognized those words from our fight song, Mighty Oregon. Reading the words reminded me of the summer of ’89 when I worked at the Paul Masson Mountain Winery’s concert series. During intermissions, I had wine pouring duty and I used to give extra vino to anyone who could sing Mighty Oregon. I was amazed at how many Bay Area residents had gone to Oregon, and even more surprised at how many Duck alumni could remember the words to the fight song.

Today, those words overlayed across past hardwood glories offended me. I felt a stir of rage. Then tears. How dare we use that word in such context.

IMG03971-20110429-1354 I stepped into the arena. On the giant screen above the court, the first thing I saw was a photo I took in the fall of 2008. Displayed there for all to see was a true hero, not the false idols found here on game night.

In that photo, Chris Kilcullen was full of life, his winning smile exuding charm, his eyes full of mirth. I sank into a seat and thought of the many hostage negotiation exercises we went through together. I’d be on the throw phone role playing a bad guy holding my wife or kids at gun point, screaming irrational demands at Chris. I swore at him. I called him every name I could think of to cause him to lose his cool. I said horrible things about his mother and his wife. I probed for every weak point a man can have in hopes of causing a flare up, a quick retort or some other slip that we could discuss in the post-exercise after action review.

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In other iterations, I’d been able to get under the skin of some of the other negotiators. Just before the SWAT entry team kicked in my door and took me down in one exercise, the last thing the negotiator said to me was, “Sayanora mother fucker!”

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Chris teaching a new negotiator to talk me out of jumping off the city hall building at the Rilea MOUT Range, September 2008.

 

One memorable exercise had Chris teaching a new negotiator how to talk a person out of jumping off a building. That person was me. I jumped. Chris imparted some of his hard-won experience to his protégé, and in the succeeding iterations he talked me off the roof.

IMG_4900        As I sat in the new arena, I thought about all the vile things I spewed at Chris that never elicited a response. His calm and soothing voice was in my ear at that moment; the consummate professional. But he was more than that. He was a consummate, compassionate human being.

After one iteration, we were standing around talking. Somebody said to Chris, “You can charm the panties off a nun.”

Totally.

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Chris had been with the Eugene Police Department since 1998. He was a motorcycle cop assigned to the traffic unit. This meant he was out there giving people with lead feet (like me) speeding tickets. But he did it in such a charming way that those he ticketed came away feeling better for their chance to interact with him. His spirit shined that bright.

It was snuffed out last week by a 56 year old mentally ill woman. She shot at Chris with a .38 after he chased her into Springfield. This great cop, this father of two, this doting husband, died on the streets he devoted his life to keep safe for the rest of us. Exactly how a woman so deranged can legally buy a firearm in this State needs to be addressed. For now, this woman’s rash and senseless act has torn apart a family, and a community. We all need to heal. Coming so soon after Jerry Webber’s death, it was an especially cruel blow to his fellow officers.

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Jerry Webber.

 

Over brats and beer in the Rilea starships, I talked cars with Chris. He loved his ‘50’s Chevy pick up that he’d had since his teen years, and it was particularly painful to see it for the first time on the arena floor parked beside the stage erected for the occasion.

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I remember rolling into Eugene in December, 2009, on my way to bring all the photos I’d shot to Lt. Jen Bills. Until I went to Afghanistan, some of the best images I’d taken were during those weeks at Rilea with EPD. I was proud to give them to Jen so that she could share them with everyone else and their families.IMG_7463

Little did I know that two of the men I photographed would later die.

Driving along 7thStreet, I passed a sleazy downtown motel. Something was amiss, as the place was surrounded by police, and a team of officers looked ready to enter one of the rooms. I saw Chris and his motorcycle across the street on the outer cordon and waved at him. I’m not sure if he saw me as I drove past, but even in the middle of the real action, he had a slight grin on his face. Ever the buoyant one, Chris Kilcullen. He was in his element.

It was a surprise to see the officers in a real world environment instead of the training range. As I parked at the station, a surge of pride went through me—in some small way I felt like I had a part in all this. Those weeks off from writing and away from my family to serve as a tackling dummy for the EPD never seemed more worthwhile. Perhaps some of the lessons helped the SWAT and CNT folks learn would be of use out in the field after all.

But all those iterations at Rilea failed to save Chris from a lone crazy armed with a pistol she never should have been able to obtain. I don’t have the space in my heart left to feel guilty about that—Taylor’s death owns that real estate—but I couldn’t help but second guess some of the things I’d done during those training weeks. Could I have done something different that could have given Chris the edge he needed to survive this woman’s surprise onslaught?

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I imagine, there’s a lot of that going around right now. And I remembered writing about two soldiers soldiers who died in Iraq during an IED attack. The men in that platoon were quick to blame some of the decisions made on that patrol. Recriminations lingered and left some of the men embittered. From an outsider’s perspective, I thought the men had gotten it all wrong. The decisions were of no consequence. The insurgent who triggered the bomb killed those men. War happens. The bad guys cause damage despite every precaution and care taken. That’s just the nature of the business. And so it is with Chris’ death. Nobody is responsible but the woman who chose murder over a ticket.

IMG_6641  I listened as Chris’ friends and families told stories of his life. His partner listed off his nicknames, many of which were hilariously off-color. When he finished, he said, “There was one name I never said to him…best friend.”

Finally, I could not take any more. Two years, four funerals—Jon Hudson, Taylor Marks, Jerry Webber and now Chris. I go through life with my heart wide open, but these past months have caused me to withdraw and be more protective of myself. Now, I felt raw again. I stepped into the lobby and walked to the huge windows overlooking campus. Across the street, I saw my freshman dorm, Dunn Hall. Third floor, center. There was my window shared with my first roomie, Chet Nakada.IMG03987-20110429-1643

Chris was born a month and four days after I was in 1968. He went to Willamette High, class of ’86. He started at the U of O the same time I was there. I wondered if we crossed paths on campus all those years ago. Perhaps we had one of those massive lecture classes like Western Civ together. I’ll never know. But he was there, sharing the experience of the university just as I had, tasting those first sweet moments of freedom right along with the rest of us.

Jen Bills. Mark Farley. My wife, Jennifer Beggs. We were all in the student body together. In time, our lives would come together in unexpected ways, and I wondered what we would have thought of that if we had such foreknowledge back then.

Gang010       I stared at my old dorm room window and thought of dancing in the hallways. Water gun fights. The great Dunn Bun War that left our floor littered with hundreds of stale hot dog and hamburger buns the night before Christmas break. I thought of tender moments shared in the predawn hours with my first college love, waking in her arms to the delicious aroma of fresh baked bread. I once told her that I’d live in a cave if I had to just to be an historian and do what I loved. She didn’t like that thought. She had dreams of material wealth, big houses and dinner parties, little black dresses and rooms captivated by her charisma.

So not me.

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But I’ll say this: mine has not been an easy professional path. Moments like this one, these farewells to friends and colleagues torn from this life through violence or circumstance weighs heavily on me, and makes carrying the work forward increasingly hard.

I turned away from the window and that idealistic gestational phase of my life. I needed to say a proper goodbye to a man whose noble heart had earned my respect and admiration.

I walked through the lobby and saw those words again.

Urge the Heroes

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So misplaced on that wall. There are no heroes on the hardwood, only athletes with heart and grit. Respectable, sure. Heroic, never. Americans misuse the word “hero” all the time. It has become an ingrained cultural error, one that demeans the service and spirit of the true heroes whose lives are spent in service for the greater good.

SUC50085    Suddenly, I didn’t feel so worn down. Chris Kilcullen dedicated his life to protecting us. I’ve spent my life making sure men and women like him are not forgotten. That is my purpose, my crusade. And in that pursuit, I connected with Chris. We were both men devoted to our callings.

The big house my college sweetheart so coveted has eluded me. Coming home from Afghanistan, the financial mountain I face is a scary one. No matter. I’ve known heroes. I’ve seen them in action here at home. I walked the ruined streets of New Orleans with them. I flew into battle with them last fall. In the final judgment, that is all I need out of life.IMG_9688

I returned to the arena, suffused with sadness, but rededicated to all I’ve predicated my life upon. Somewhere in the years behind us, the kid I once was stared out that dorm window dreaming of doing the things I have done. If he could see me now, I’d tell him only one thing: I’ll keep the faith.

I owe it to men like Chris.

 

 

Originally Published April 30, 2011:

http://www.theunawriterslair.com/the_unawriters_lair_guns_/2011/04/urge-the-heroes.html

 

Categories: Home Front, Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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