Posts Tagged With: Iraq

Into the Dead City: With 2-162 Infantry in New Orleans 2005, Part I

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First glimpse of New Orleans, September 8,2005.

New Orleans, Louisiana

September 8, 2005

Ten Days After Hurricane Katrina

 

 

The dog trotted alongside our bus as we rolled to a halt next to a small park flanked by a Mississippi River seawall. The green space here was littered with debris—downed tree limbs, trash, an abandoned grocery cart lying on its side. The wall had been tagged by some anonymous vandal who memorialized his sentiments with, “RIP. Whore Katrina.” Sort of a gang-banger version of a cave pictograph, I guess.

I watched the dog lope past my window. It was an emaciated German Shepherd without tags or a collar.

“John…John, let’s go,” I turned from the window to see Sergeant First Class Vince “Vinni” Jacques calling to me from the front of the bus. All the other soldiers were jumping off the bus and streaming across the garbage-strewn grass. We’d been in the bus for almost three hours, drinking water and staring out at the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina as we inched our way from the New Orleans Naval Air Station, across the Mississippi, and into the city. On the entire drive in, we saw less than a dozen people—all but two of whom were first responders. On a street corner a few blocks from the Mississippi, a twenty-something couple sat on the curb, clothes filthy, eyes hollow and staring at us. A dirty grey dog lay panting at their feet, a length of twine serving as a leash and collar. They were the only civilians I’d seen in the otherwise empty streets. New Orleans looked like the set of one of Hollywood’s last-man-on-earth epics.

For the Ward Brothers!

I followed Vinni off the bus. The heat assailed me the moment my feet touched the ground. Not even noon yet, and the temperature had to be a hundred degrees. Coupled with late summer humidity, the weather was so severe that people were dying from it as they awaited rescue at evacuation points elsewhere in the city. The day before we left Portland, the Oregonian ran a front page photograph of an elderly African-American sprawled dead in a lawn chair he had unfolded in front of the New Orleans Convention Center. Another victim of heat stroke.

I followed Vinni to the seawall, where most of the soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, Oregon National Guard had lined up to relieve their bladders. I watched the spectacle of three hundred and fifty men urinating in a public park and whispered, “Well, you don’t see that every day.”

Through tight lips, Vinni replied, “Say goodbye to civilization for awhile.”

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Then-Sergeant First Class Vince “Vinni” Jacques. Taken at the Portland Airport the evening before our departure for New Orleans. Vinni had been wounded in action in Iraq, and had served in the 1991 Gulf War in an airborne artillery unit.

A year before, as the battalion prepared to deploy to Iraq, some of the men had taken their last leave in New Orleans. Sergeants Shane and Brian Ward had pub crawled through Bourbon Street. Late on their first night in town, Shane staggered into an alley and was caught relieving himself by two New Orleans police officers. They dragged him to their squad car, cuffed him and face planted him on its hood. Brian protested, and they roughed him up as well. Both spent the night in the local slammer.

What a difference a year makes. Shane had been seriously wounded in Iraq. Brian had come through physically unscathed, but had left the Guard in the summer.

Sergeant First Class Tommy Houston appeared next to me. Always grinning, ready with a story and generous to a fault, he looked over at me and shouted, “This one’s for the Ward Brothers!”

The cry echoed up and down the seawall: “For the Wards!”

Without power or running water, there was not a functioning bathroom in the entire city. This would have to do. I unzipped and let fly, feeling like a complete scofflaw.

A moment later, as I walked back toward the bus, the German Shepherd padded toward me. I stopped and regarded her. She looked up at me with forlorn eyes, her ears lowered submissively.

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The first of hundreds of abandoned pets we found in New Orleans.

“Come here, girl,” I said, urging the dog a few steps closer. Soldiers walked around her, and she glanced at each with an odd dual expression of fear and hope.

She came to me and sat down. I didn’t have much food on me, just a granola bar I’d brought from Oregon. I pulled it out and tore the wrapper off. She looked puzzled as I offered it to her. A few dainty sniffs, an even sadder expression, and she took the bar in her mouth.

“Better than nothing, I guess, eh girl?” I whispered to her.

“Come on, John,” Vinni said

I lingered. I had a canteen of water, and I tried to pour some into the dog’s mouth. No luck. She finished her granola bar and waited for more. A soldier I didn’t know found an empty can in the grass, brought it over and filled it with water from his CamelBak. She drank eagerly.

“John!” Vinni growled, his voice suggesting I ignore him again at my peril. I stuffed the empty granola wrapper into my pocket—I may have just defiled a public park, but I wasn’t ready to break the littering laws despite the reeking garbage that lay strewn in all directions—and followed Vinni.

We pulled our bags from the bus’s luggage compartment. Each of us had a rucksack stuffed with clothing and gear, plus a duffel bag, body armor and Kevlar helmet. To this mix, I’d added an Olympus digital camera and a Dell laptop computer.  Instead of searching for our stuff in the mass of identical rucks and duffels, we shouldered whatever was handed to us and walked single file the two blocks to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which now served as the Oregon National Guard’s headquarters in Louisiana.

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At the Creative Arts Center a few hours before we headed north to the New Orleans Baptist Seminary. The CAC served as the brigade HQ for the Oregon National Guard.

We dumped our gear in the parking lot, then returned to the bus to get the crates of bottled water and boxes of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) that would sustain us in the days to come. Each box weighed twenty or thirty pounds and was stuffed with a variety of MRE’s ranging from chicken sandwiches to omelets and hash browns.

The soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry had spent a year in the heat of the Middle East. They’d fought in Najaf, Fallujah, and helped suppress the two Shia uprisings in Baghdad. They were used to this heat and knew how to measure their movements and stay hydrated. They grabbed two or three crates at a time and slung them on their shoulders. It looked easy. I picked up two MRE boxes and made it a block before the humidity hammered me. Soaked with sweat and panting like a dog, I staggered toward the parking lot.

I was a middle-aged civilian, out of shape and a hundred pounds overweight. I had no experience with this sort of weather. My head started to buzz. My vision tunneled. A soldier nearby saw my face and grabbed one of the boxes. “Thanks,” I managed.

Me with the Volunteers the morning before we flew to New Orleans. I went into the city weighing 300 lbs. Came out a month later down to 260. I was extremely out of shape, unfit and totally unready for the physical and emotional challenges of post-Katrina New Orleans.

“Hey, Sir,” he said to me, “You’re here as our guest. You don’t need to carry this shit.”

“I’m sure as hell not going to be dead weight.”

He laughed, then added, “Well, that’s exactly what you’ll be if you go down and do the twitchin’ chicken.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“When you get heat prostration, you keel over and your body spasms uncontrollably. We saw it all the time in Iraq. Called it the twitchin’ chicken.”

“Jesus!” I had a vision of myself writhing in the street as Vinni and Tommy Houston watched. Could there be anything more humiliating?

He grinned at me and bounded off, carrying the MRE box like a football.

“Damn, how I wish I was young again. Or skinny.”

I dropped the MRE box on top of a pile in the parking lot. The men had made four-foot-high walls with the supplies, providing a bit of protection from the sun. Without any further orders, they settled down to doze and chat.

I found a bottle of water and drained it in seconds. Another one followed. I tried to wipe the sweat off my face, but everything I had was soaked with it. I ended up just smearing it around with my grey-blue t-shirt.

Vinni had gone off somewhere. Most of the soldiers in the immediate area I’d only recently met. I stood there next to the pile of supplies, feeling terribly out of place. I was the only civilian with 2-162.

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SFC Tommy Houston. Gregarious, always ready with a story and generous, Tommy made sure I had the proper equipment for New Orleans. I didn’t even own a pair of boots before we left. The pair he acquired for me turned from black to green as a result of the muck we slogged through in the city.

I finished a third bottle of water, then lay down in the shade of the supply boxes next to Tommy Houston.

“Ya good John? Yer lookin’ a little on the warm side there, pal.”

“Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks.” When the battalion received its mobilization orders, and I asked to come along, Tommy took me into the bowels of a supply warehouse and outfitted me with black infantry boots, a CamelBak, wool socks and a poncho liner that he called a “Whoobie.” This was a lightweight, camouflaged blanket that he assured me would come in handy.

We made small talk until I found myself drifting. The sun rose and our meager shade evaporated. The men covered their faces with their caps and soon most of them were snoring.

Movement at my feet woke me up. When I opened my eyes, I saw Sergeant Matt Zedwick grinning down on me. Known as “Z” in the battalion, Matt was a superb physical specimen. He was one of those guys who shattered the myth of soggy, out-of-shape National Guardsmen that the regular army often uses to denigrate the reservists. Matt didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, and his shoulders were wide, strong and capable. In our interviews, I’d found him to be the epitome of the modern National Guard non-commissioned officer.

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Matt “Z” Zedwick at NAS New Orleans the morning of September 8, 2005 before we drove into the city. Matt was a veteran of the Sunni Triangle, the 2nd Battles of Najaf and Fallujah. He became the first Oregon National Guardsman to receive the Silver Star since WWII. After Katrina, he was a guest contestant on the TV Game Show, Deal or No Deal.

“What’s up, Matt?” I asked. Without a word, he pulled a Zip-Lock bag out of his pocket and dropped it on an MRE box by my feet. He bent down and tugged its contents onto the cardboard.

I sat up and saw that he’d brought me a six-inch-long dead dragonfly.

“What the hell?”

He flashed another sly grin and walked away. I watched him leave, completely befuddled by this gift.

In June, 2004, a car bomb destroyed Matt’s Humvee and set it afire. The gunner, Eric McKinley, died instantly. Matt jumped out and dragged his wounded truck commander clear of the burning wreck. When insurgents opened fire on them, he shielded Sean with his own body. Moments later, a second IED blew up and severely wounded Shane Ward. Despite incoming small arms fire, Matt rushed over to him and staunched the bleeding, an action Shane told me over a beer had saved his life. Matt became the first Oregon Guardsmen since World War II to receive a Silver Star for courage under fire. That’s the third highest valor award the Army gives its soldiers.

I sat pondering what just happened when Specialist  Joel “Stiney” Stineman strolled by and dropped another dead insect on the MRE box. Tommy and I studied it. It appeared to be some sort of black and red wasp.

Another soldier delivered a second dragonfly. Soon, the MRE box was covered with dead bugs.

Vinni reappeared, face red and slick with sweat. He looked down at the box and asked, “What’s going on?”

“Well, I’m not sure. The guys keep bringing me dead things.”

Vinni let out a deep, rolling laugh. “John, that’s just a sign they like you.”

I wanted to ask if this was some sort of infantry tradition. Instead, I feigned appreciation and replied, “Nice. Good to know. Appreciate it.”

I scooped up the biggest dragonfly and stuck it back in the Z’s plastic bag.

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The Box of Dead Offerings.

“What’re ya doin’?” Tommy asked as I stuffed the bug into my laptop bag.

“Hey, you never know when something like this will come in handy,”

Vinni was a legendary prankster, and he’d already victimized me several times. I owed him, and the bug had given me ideas.

Tommy shook his head and gave me a sly grin. “Ya. You’ll fit in around here.”

Sergeant First Class Sean Davis, the man Matt Zedwick had pulled out of the burning Humvee, walked up to Vinni. “There’s a bank up the street,” he said, “There’s a bunch a parakeets flyin’ around inside it.”

“Parakeets?” Vinni asked, incredulous.

“Yeah.”

“That’s jacked up.”

“Well, go take a look at what’s sittin’ in front of the entrance to the brigade headquarters,” somebody else chimed in.

“What?” I asked.

“Go look!”

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The guardian of brigade HQ.

I got up and stretched, feeling old and very out of shape. I walked through the parking lot to the Creative Arts center. As I rounded the corner, I encountered a chicken roosting on a loop of extension cord next to the front door. The cord ran back to a gasoline generator that provided the headquarters with enough power to get the unit’s computers up and running.

I walked up to it and flipped on my camera. She sat up defensively, eyeballing me as if I’d invaded her territory. Her territory? She’d made her nest at the entrance to a cultural landmark. And besides, who owns chickens in a big city? I had visions of some local voodoo doctor keeping chickens around for various love potions or revenge serums.

“John, how you doing?”  I turned around to see Brigadier General Douglas Pritt, the commander of the Oregon contingent here in post-Katrina New Orleans. We had met back in February, when I first approached the Guard and asked permission to write a book about 2-162’s experiences in Iraq.

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General Pritt confers with Captain San Miguel, commander of Bravo Company, 2-162 Infantry.

“I’m good, Sir. Thank you.” I replied. General Pritt did not have the visage of a hard-bitten general, a la George S. Patton or Douglas MacArthur. Instead, he possessed a friendly face, a calm demeanor and a soft voice. He never swore, a fact that had become a legend in his command. Infantrymen have notoriously foul mouths, but woe be unto any soldier who used profanity in his presence.

We shook hands as he said, “Listen, how about you staying here at brigade headquarters? We’ll have air conditioning up and running in a few hours and hot chow at night. You’ll be comfortable here.”

“Where’s 2-162 going, Sir?” I asked.

“North, up by the housing projects. Lot of flooding there.”

The previous night, just before we settled down to sleep on the aircraft parking ramp at the New Orleans Naval Air Station, I’d met a Virginia National Guard MP. We’d struck up a conversation and I had asked him about the city. “The worst part’s the projects. Gang bangers ‘been shootin’ at everyone—police, ambulances, fire trucks. They’ve lit ‘em all up.  The other day, we found a cop lyin’ face down, handcuffed to a telephone pole. Shot in the back of the head, execution-style. Freakin’ gruesome shit, man.”DSC02528

“You’ll be able to see plenty from here, John,” General Pritt continued.

We made eye contact, and I could see the intent behind his words. You won’t be able to do this. Not in your shape. Not with your weight.

            The General was giving me a gracious way out. Perhaps he was having second thoughts about allowing me to tag along.

I’d spent the last six months doing research for the book on 2-162. It entailed interviewing as many members of the unit as possible; all of the documents associated with the deployment were still classified. Since February, I’d put almost twenty thousand miles on my Explorer as I drove around Oregon to speak with the battalion’s veterans. The work had taken me in some unexpected directions, including the visitation area of the Washington County Jail.

On the Friday before Labor Day, I arrived at the Oregon Military Department to interview the senior non-commissioned officer in the battalion, Sergeant-Major Brunk Conley. He came out of his office and greeted me with, “John, I can’t talk to you today. I’m sorry. We just got mobilized for Katrina. We’re going to New Orleans.”

Without even thinking, I blurted, “Take me with you.”IMG_3755

Brunk, a lean and chisled twenty-plus-year veteran of the Guard smiled warmly and said, “I hoped you’d say that. Let me go talk to General Pritt.”

All year long, as I met and interviewed each member of 2-162, the fact that I had not been able to embed with them in Iraq weighed heavily on me. I’d only learned of the unit’s intense combat experience a month before they were set to return, so I had no time to get out there and meet the soldiers in the field when I started writing the book.

Going to New Orleans could help atone for that.

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Vinni with my daughter Renee during a birthday party for my son Eddie a month before we went to New Orleans. Vinni had given Renee the hat she has on.

Besides, when I called Vinni and asked him if he was going, he growled, “Hell yeah–if they let us shoot looters!” Vinni growled a lot. It was one of his most endearing features, actually.

Where Vinni went, I went. In the six months since I met him, I’d become closer to him than anyone besides my wife. We’d shared stories, bonded over drinks and late night talks. I had helped write his men up for awards the army had initially denied them. In return, he paved the way within the unit for me to write the book.

Air conditioning would be nice. So would hot chow. For the past three days, I’d lived off granola bars and MRE crackers.

“Sir, if you don’t mind, I’d like to stay with 2-162.”

General Pritt offered a thin smile, “John, it is going to be pretty rugged.”

“I know, Sir. But if it’s at all possible, I’d like to be with the Volunteers.”

Back in 1917, when the United States joined the Great War, 2-162 became the first National Guard unit to assemble and declare itself ready for service overseas. It gained its motto, “First to Assemble,” from that achievement, and also earned the nickname the Volunteers.

“Okay. But once you’re there, you’ll have to stay.”

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Abandoned city busses became our primary means of transportation from the outset of our arrival in New Orleans. The Soldiers combed the streets to find them, then got them back into working condition within a few hours.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, Sir.”

“You’ve grown close to the men, haven’t you, John?” he asked.

“Some of them are like brothers to me, Sir.”

He thought about this for a minute. Journalists stay detached, or at least they try. I was never a journalist and never really referred to myself as a writer, even though that’s how I’ve made my living for nine years. When asked, I tell people I am a military historian.

“We’ve found a good spot for the battalion, a seminary. You should be relatively comfortable there.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Loading up for the drive north to the Seminary.

Loading up for the drive north to the Seminary.

General Pritt offered his hand. He looked unsure. I felt unsure. I think both of us were wondering the same thing: can the middle-aged, flabby historian hack this?

            “Good luck, John.”

“I’ll see you out there, Sir.”

He looked at the chicken as he walked back inside headquarters. She stared back, unafraid, as though she dared him to interfere. She sat up, extended her neck and clucked what must have been a curse in Chickenese.

The general shook his head and smiled, then disappeared inside. The chicken would stay.

General Pritt was a hard man not to like.

The waiting in the parking lot continued. The Oregon Guard lacked motor transport, and we remained hunkered down around our supplies hoping that something would show up to get us out of the sun and to our assigned area of operations.

When nothing did, the soldiers improvised. Small parties set forth into the neighborhood. Initially, this was just a matter of curiosity, but when some of the men stumbled across an abandoned city bus, inspiration struck. Further searches uncovered four of them, all with their keys still in the ignition, just sitting derelict in the middle of streets and boulevards. One had been driven onto a sidewalk where it had snapped off a stoplight pole. The driver had kept going after the collision until the bottom of the vehicle balanced on the pole’s stump. The Guardsmen, ever creative and adaptive, figured out a way to get it clear without tearing out the bus’s vitals.

Late that afternoon, the men drove our newfound wheels to the Creative Arts Center and reported to the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Hendrickson, that we had our own rides at last.

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Joel “Stiney” Stineman, the battalion’s “Token Jew.”

As dusk fell, we made a human chain from the pile of supplies to our new busses and passed box after box from one set of hands to another until everything we’d brought into the city had been stuffed inside the rigs. When we finished, our duffels and rucks dominated the back third of every bus. I climbed inside and found Sergeant First Class Chris Johnson sitting atop the pile of gear, his head sticking through an open skylight in the roof.  Every other seat had been taken, so I sat down on the steps leading to the rear side door. A moment later, Stiney sat down next to me.

IMG_3798Peering through the double doors, I saw the German Shepherd again. She had lingered on the edge of the parking lot all afternoon. Occasionally, a soldier would bring her something to eat or drink. Now, as we prepared to leave, she was nosing through torn bags of trash across the street from the parking lot. When our engines revved, she looked up morosely and watched us drive away.

“Who would abandon such a beautiful animal?” I wondered out loud.

Stiney shook his head, “I don’t know, but they’re all over the place, rooting through the garbage like that.”

“Why isn’t anyone out there rescuing them?”

Stiney shrugged. “Nothing’s working here, John. It’s chaos.”

“It’s so fucked up that the morgue workers all  fuckin’ walked off the job,” Chris Johnson shouted down to us from his perch, “Nobody’s even around to pick up the corpses.”

“That’ll prolly be our job,” somebody added.

The bus started moving. We drove east for a few blocks and came to a smoldering building. One entire side had been blown out and tanks of propane gas lay strewn through the rubble. Nearby, somebody had spray-painted “LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT” on a scorched brick wall.IMG_3760

Stiney leaned over and showed me his digital camera. “Check this out. We found a crack house up the street.” He flipped on the viewing screen and showed me photos he’d taken of the wretched place.

I’d grown up in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Our neighbors were corporate CEO’s and high tech entrepreneurs. Pretention, status, materialism—those were the cultural norms I knew as a kid. When I came to Oregon, it took years to knock that arrogance out of me. What did I know of crack houses?

“I’ve had an easy life,” I said, more to myself than to Stiney.

“We all did. Until Iraq,” he answered.

Inside the crack house Stiney found.

Inside the crack house Stiney found.

The busses swung left up a wide boulevard. We were heading north now.

“Were you there the day Vinni got hit?” I asked.

Stiney nodded. “Yeah. He never really got over that and we didn’t either. I’m surprised he’s here.”

Four months into the deployment, Vinni’s armored Humvee was destroyed by a roadside bomb. His driver, Kenny Leisten, died instantly. Everyone else inside suffered severe wounds. Vinni had spent the last year recovering and only returned to active duty status the day before we left for Louisiana.

We sat in silence for several minutes, watching the scenery pass.

“Check that out!” Stiney exclaimed. I followed his gaze to see a derelict city bus resting partly on a sidewalk. Bullet holes peppered some of the windows.

We passed downed power lines draped over crushed and battered cars. At a high school, we saw trucks on their side, telephone poles snapped like pencils, and pools of oil collecting under shattered transformers. In the distance, fires blazed untended, creating crimson coronas on the horizon.

We came to an intersection where cars had been hastily abandoned. Doors and trunks stood open. Some had hoods raised and belongings cast pell-mell on the ground.

We found abandoned busses all around the Creative Arts Center.

We found abandoned busses all around the Creative Arts Center.

There were hundreds of unused vehicles that could have been used to rescue the people at the the Superdome and Convention Center.

There were hundreds of unused vehicles that could have been used to rescue the people at the the Superdome and Convention Center.

We drove on through the New Orleans sunset. The deeper we penetrated into the city, the darker it became. Our drivers moved slowly, edging around stalled cars and random debris that clogged the road in places. A few times, we had to inch along the sidewalks to continue our journey.

“I wonder why they didn’t use these busses to get the people out of the Superdome.” I said.

Stiney shook his head. “I heard a teenager had that idea. He showed up with a bus, offered to take as many people out of the city as it would hold.”

“Really? What happened?”

“The NOPD arrested him for theft.”

“Jesus, you’re kidding?”

Before we’d left, we’d seen Mayor Nagin’s plea for help during an interview with Geraldo on Fox News. He sounded desperate and panicky. Later, we heard him on the radio announce that he was going to stay in the city no matter what, even though the CIA was trying to kill him. Talk about delusional.

Nobody was sure what to make of all this. It did make us anxious to get our boots on the ground and see for ourselves what was going on in New Orleans.

The drive north to the Seminary.

The drive north to the Seminary.

Another few blocks, and the busses came to a stop. We sat in total darkness, unable to see more than a few yards beyond our windows. I could make out an alley with a few abandoned cars and several downed trees. No sign of the floodwaters that had caused the worst national catastrophe since Galveston, Texas, had been destroyed by a hurricane at the turn of the 20th Century.

“Stiney, you remember when we first met?” I asked in a hushed voice.

“Kenny’s memorial service.”

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Kenny Leisten’s memorial service, July 2005. I met many of the men from 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company there for the first time. Since then, I’ve tried to get back each July 28th.

Vinni had invited me up to Willamette National Cemetery to pay my respects to his fallen driver on the first anniversary of his death. I met most of the platoon that day for the first time. I also met Kenny’s father, who welcomed me with a warmth that I had not expected.

“Yeah. Vinni told me that your church sent a copy of the 91st Psalm to everyone in the platoon. Is that right?”

Stiney pulled off his cap, wiped the sweat of his forehead and answered, “That’s right. They laminated it on a little card.  Vinni read it to the platoon before every mission, to keep us all safe.”

During the memorial, Vinni had produced his copy of the 91st Psalm and had read it over Kenny’s grave. The soldiers had wept as he choked through the words.

“Okay, I’m confused,” I said. “If you belong to a church, why isit everyone keeps calling you the battalion’s ‘token Jew?’”

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Vinni at Kenny’s grave.

Stiney started to laugh. “I’m both. I am a Japanese-German-American Christian Jew.”

“How’s that possible?” I asked through my laughter.

He thought about that for a long moment. As he deliberated, a cat appeared out of the darkness. It moved slowly, hitching along on three legs. It kept its back left leg raised, and it carefully avoided putting any pressure on it.

“I guess the best way to put it is that I’m spiritual without being confined by doctrine. I have my own views of God. You can’t simply believe what others spoon-feed to you. If you open yourself to God, his true reality is revealed. That’s the basis of any relationship with Him. Do you know 1 John 5:14?” Stiney finally said.

“No.”

“’This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.’ Basically, the way I see it, we have to get past all the artificial barriers we’ve created to know God’s true nature. It sounds easy, but I still struggle with it.”

I wanted to ask him where God was in New Orleans, but thought better of it.

IMG_3800The cat hobbled into the alley and disappeared. I had volunteered at the animal clinic in my small Oregon town for three years in the 90s. The sight of this injured animal made me want to kick the doors open and go save it. For a moment, I indulged in a fantasy: if I could only get to it, I’d keep it hidden from the battalion commander and somehow get it back to Oregon.

I stared into the alley, hoping to catch sight of it again.

“You okay?” Stiney asked, staring at me.

“Just hate seeing animals suffer.”

“How ‘bout you? You religious?” Stiney asked.DSC02070

“Not in a conventional sense, I guess,”

“What do you mean?”

“I was raised Episcopalian until my sister rebelled. She refused to kneel at a service once, and that embarrassed my mother so much she never took us back.”

“Do you go to church now?”

“Sometimes. But I guess I’m like you. Have my own views. I believe in a higher power.”

“After the number of times I could have died, I have no doubt of that.” Stiney said, his voice an octave lower.

“Stiney, how old are you?”

“Twenty-one.”

“You are wise beyond your years, you know that?”
“Thanks, John,” he said, smiling.

Our lead driver refused to go any further. He’d learned that every convoy using this route had been sniped at by gunmen or gang bangers. Going forward in darkness into an ambush did not appeal to him. And so, we waited. The minutes grew long. Stiney and I leaned against the stack of gear behind us and got lost in our own thoughts.

DSC02068Forty-five minutes later, somebody prevailed on the driver to get moving again. With a lurch, our bus crept forward into the black New Orleans night.

We hadn’t gone far when a pink glow lit up our bus. I stood up and looked out the windows to see a Tower Records, its neon sign miraculously still blazing. A body lay on the far sidewalk, front-lit by the store’s sign.

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Starving, dying and desperate animals were everywhere in New Orleans. Eighty percent of the pets in the city died in Katrina’s wake.

I froze at the sight, eyes locked and tracking it as it passed through my field of view. Stiney said nothing, but I could tell he was looking at it, too.

Another block, and the blackness returned.  I could make out the buildings on our side of the street but little else. We slowed to a crawl again and slalomed through more debris. As the bus straightened out we reached another intersection. The side street stretched beyond our view, but I saw a car squashed almost flat by a fallen tree.

To our left, a small halo of red light came into view. It moved, first down, then back up, then glowed brighter, revealing a solitary figure behind it. We drew closer. It was a man, standing alone on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. He was the first living person we’d seen since leaving the Creative Arts Center. As our bus went by him, I saw the whites of his eyes. He was so close I could have reached through the double doors to shake his hand. He took another drag of his cigarette and exhaled the smoke.

In a doorway only a few feet from the lone figure, two corpses lay, arms around each other in a last embrace.  Their bodies, baked for days in the heat, looked bloated and distended, their arms and legs entwined, foreheads touching.

I looked back at the smoking man who stood in the darkness next to the dead. He seemed unconcerned.

“Did you see that?” I asked Stiney, trying very hard to keep the horror and panic out of my voice.

“Yes,” he said in a soft whisper.

My body started to shake and I did my best not to let Stiney see. If I were to earn the respect of these men, I could not let such sights affect me. At least, I couldn’t it show.

“It’s like that movie 28 Days Later out there.” Stiney remarked.

“Apocalyptic,” I added. I couldn’t stop shaking.

The scenes of devastation rolled past our field of view. After awhile, destroyed and derelict cars became routine. So did the acres of downed power lines that festooned every neighborhood we entered.

Sometime before midnight, we reached the edge of the flood zone. The busses splashed through ten-inch-deep watery sludge. Soon, the side of our rig was slathered with black muck. Streaks of the stuff slithered down the windows on our double doors, leaving a track of filth that partially obscured our view.

We approached a freeway and inched onto it. Here and there we passed emergency vehicles parked nose to tail on the shoulder. A few had their lights flashing through the darkness. As we passed them, the strobe effect made me dizzy.

Stiney on a night patrol, carrying the platoon's commo gear.

Stiney on a night patrol a few days later, carrying the platoon’s commo gear.

The freeway dipped downward and we inched onto some low ground that must have been totally submerged when the levees broke. Now, the waters had receded just enough to leave a corona of pudding-like slime at the edge of the remaining floodwater. Dead fish lay in the mud, their silver scales illuminated by our headlights.

Our drivers dared to cross this flooded stretch of highway. I watched as the water grew closer and closer to our bottom step. It looked opaque. Shapes and forms bobbed on the surface, but I couldn’t tell what they were. Dead fish? Tree limbs?

Then I saw the unmistakable form of a dog. It lay half-submerged near a retaining wall, the wake kicked up by our passage slapping against its fur.

I closed my eyes as we went by it.

The bus changed gears and sped up, slopping out of the flooded patch of freeway. The bus had grown silent–the men no longer pointed things out to each other. The silence unsettled me. I wanted to strike up another conversation with Stiney but words eluded us. Instead, we sank deeper into our own thoughts.

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2nd Platoon, Bravo Company’s area at the Seminary was along the walkway in front of the music hall.

Somewhere, we took a wrong turn. The convoy stuttered to a stop. The drivers conferred over crackling radios. When we started moving again, each bus executed a “Y” turn and headed back for the flooding. We splashed through it again and took an off-ramp that led us back into the city.

Ten minutes later the convoy reached the New Orleans Baptist Seminary. We drove through the gates and stopped in the parking lot in front of the student union. The doors opened, and we dismounted to form another chain to get our gear off the bus. Soon, the parking lot was stacked with rucksacks and duffels. We sorted through them, reading the names stenciled on them until all had been claimed. I grabbed my gear and followed Vinni into the Seminary. Each company in the battalion had been assigned an area to bed down for the night. Charlie company set up shop in front of the cafeteria. I followed Vinni and Bravo Company around the corner to a breezeway in front of the music hall.

We dumped our gear and returned to the bus to fetch the supplies. Soon, my assigned area was flanked by MRE boxes. I pulled out my poncho liner and laid it down on the concrete between Vinni and Stiney.

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Stiney on his cot at the Seminary. It was too hot and humid to stay inside since there was no power to any of the buildings.

Some of the men carried collapsible cots with them. After setting them up, they tore into the MRE’s and began eating. I checked my watch. It was almost one in the morning. We’d been driving all night.

I hadn’t eaten since we left the naval air station that morning. I hadn’t brought along a pocket knife, and I hadn’t learned that you can tear the Mylar covers off the MRE packages by hand. I hated asking for help, so I’d spent the last few days eating the granola bars I’d brought from Oregon.

Vinni polished off an MRE then left to attend a briefing with the battalion staff. Stiney busied himself with setting up his cot and unloading some of his gear. Tommy Houston took his men over to the nearby school chapel, where they settled down on the steps.

Exhaustion set in. Using my duffel as a pillow, I stretched out and started to fall asleep. Then Vinni showed up and shook me back awake.

“John, listen up,” he whispered. “Here’s the deal. Three firefighters fell into the water a few days ago. Full immersion. All three just died of cholera.”

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Briefing at the Seminary.

“Cholera?” I asked, stunned.

“Yeah. And a couple of dogs were seen drinkin’ the floodwater. They died horribly in twenty minutes.” He emphasized horribly.

“Jesus,” was all I managed.

“Orders from the battalion commander: we’re to stay away from the water. Don’t get even touch it. Anyone who comes in contact with it will be treated as a casualty and evacuated out of the city. Understood?”
“Yes.”

“Stay away from it. We’ll DECON after every patrol startin’ tomorrow morning.”

“DECON?” I asked.

“Decontaminate. We’ll use bleach.”

“Okay.” I wondered if this meant bathing in the stuff.

“Stay out of the water, John.”

“No worries, Vinni.”

“Good. Get some sleep. I’ve got to go brief my squad leaders.”

He vanished down the breezeway. I lay back on the poncho liner, Vinni’s words lingering in my head.

Cholera.

In college, I wrote a term paper on cholera. In the last fifty years, it has been almost unheard of in the United States, thanks to modern sanitation techniques and clean water supplies. In times past, cholera ravaged communities, killing even the strongest with its brutal effects. I remember writing about its symptoms, and how the afflicted would vomit so violently they sometimes tore their stomach muscles.

I couldn’t think of a worse way to die.DSC00651

What am I doing here?

I looked over at Vinni’s empty cot. Across the breezeway, against the music building’s outer wall, the men had formed another line of cots. Spike Olsen sat on the edge of his, shirt off, dogtags dangling around his neck. Spike had just married my daughter’s first grade teacher. My wife, Jennifer, and I had attended the wedding and spent the night dancing and drinking with many of the other men sitting around us now.

You’re here because you’re connected to these men.

Spike had survived both the Battle of Najaf and the Battle of Fallujah. He and I had spent hours talking about his experiences in my office, an old ballroom above an animal clinic. He was finishing school at Western Oregon University and wanted to be a cop.

“What up, John? You doin’ okay?” he asked me, noticing my gaze.

“Doin’ great,” I lied.

            The first few times I had interviewed Vinni, he treated me like any other journalist. He kept it professional and didn’t share much of himself. Then one night, we got to laughing about something, and he asked if I wanted to hear some of the funnier stories about the battalion. That’s when his true personality emerged—puckish, wild, full of life. He told of pranks and parties and nights on the town before the deployment.

Through the laughter, we’d become friends. And from that friendship sprang trust. During another interview session, Vinni related how his platoon had raided a house in the Sunni Triangle. In the chaos, an attached sniper team accidentally shot a woman in front of her family. In halting sentences, Vinni told me how his medic, Doc Josh Smith, tried to save her. She died in front of her family.

Rather than walking away, Vinni spoke to her father and told him how devastated he was such an accident could happen. Beside his daughter’s body, the father stepped forward and embraced Vinni and thanked him for his words.

After he shared that moment with me, we kept no secrets between us.

What started as just another book project—my sixth—turned into something very different. I’d come to Oregon for college. I didn’t make many friends up here. My friends and family back home really didn’t understand why I stayed after graduation. Most of my high school class had returned to Silicon Valley.

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Spike and I during the company’s first night patrol in New Orleans. I was wearing borrowed body armor, which didn’t fit. No matter how hard I tried in New Orleans and Afghanistan, I was never able to master the art of tacticool. I looked like a dork tagging along with some truly exceptional human beings. Which I was.

But I loved my adopted state. I stayed and worked in the computer game industry for six years before finding the courage to leave and start a writing career. In the first six months I made three hundred bucks. Where some of my classmates from home were already multimillionaire entrepreneurs, I struggled to pay the mortgage every month. It soon became hard to relate to even my closest childhood friends, and I isolated myself away in my small Oregon town.

Then I met the soldiers of 2-162. Through our interviews, I discovered the non commissioned officers(NCO’s) and I shared common values, similar views and goals. We came from opposite backgrounds—most had worked their way up into the middle class while I had worked my way down—but somehow that didn’t matter. Loyalty, trust, meaning—those were the things that motivated men like Vinni, Sean Davis and Matt Zedwick. Those were the things that motivated me too, but had been all too elusive in my life for far too long.

I turned over and wrapped the poncho liner over my head to protect myself from the mosquitoes now buzzing around us. Only my nose and eyes remained uncovered.

I’d spent the last nine years writing about World War II and Korea from an office above the animal clinic in downtown Independence. I’d never embedded with a unit before, never ventured out into the field. I had been removed from reality, steeped in the past and writing about men who, for the most part, were long in their graves.

Now I’d followed kids half my age into the heart of a national disaster. I was so far out of my box, I felt utterly lost.

I couldn’t explain why to myself, but I knew, no matter how hard this would become, I needed to be here with 2-162. I had to overcome my fear, though, and I’d never been good at that.

Vinni settled down in his cot. As he pulled his whoobie over himself, he called over to me, “First patrol at 0600, John. Briefing at 0530. Get some sleep.”

“Roger that, Vinni.”

But long into that first night, I stared out at the floodwaters not ten feet from my make-shift concrete bed and wondered if I had the strength to pull this off.

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Categories: National Guard | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Human Cost of Indecision

Shock and Awe, the war on ISIS is not. The junior varsity team President Obama has repeatedly denigrated has spent this spring scoring a series of strategic victories that has left the U.S.-backed Iraqi Army in shambles. Our response? Seventeen air strikes since mid-May. An Air Force general violated the basic tenants of OPSEC to crow about bombing a building. Oh, and the President admitted this week that we don’t have a strategy.

We have spent the last year proving that you cannot fight a war half-heartedly and expect anything but an enemy victory.

The long-term security ramifications of our weak response to ISIS are extremely troublesome. ISIS has been given time to develop tactics to counter our firepower and technology. They’ve become even more effective on the battlefield. They’ve now got thousands of American armored vehicles that they have captured from the Iraqis. Their recent assault on Ramadi included waves of explosive-laden Humvees driven by suicide bombers into Iraqi Army defenses. Their strategic mobility in the face of our complete air superiority demonstrates a masterful grasp of logistics and camouflage.

The longer the West lets ISIS survive, the more capable they become. Australian intelligence reports now indicate that ISIS has acquired enough radiological material from captured hospitals or other sources that they can now build an effective dirty bomb.

If the Australians are right, the junior varsity has the capacity to build and deploy a WMD. This is the same junior varsity that tortured a fourteen year old boy to death on camera for propaganda purposes, and recently threw three gay men off a hundred foot tall building in Mosul before a crowd of hundreds of onlookers who had been armed with rocks and told to finish off the prisoners should they miraculously survive the fall. ISIS has institutionalized violence, torture, mass killings and then glorifies their brutality with internet propaganda videos. If anyone thinks ISIS will show restraint with WMD weapons, or will negotiate them away in some future diplomatic summit, they are delusional.

Our policy has been to supply and train the Iraqi Army. That policy has failed. If there are any doubts of that, just look at the numerous photos and footage of ISIS fighters wearing American ACU’s, carrying M4 rifles with ACOG scopes and using American-made Hummvees and even M1 tanks.

Meanwhile, the Kurds are fighting bravely with fierce determination and are begging for weapons and ammunition since the Baghdad government has played politics with such deliveries. The Kurds are about the only ones who have resolutely fought ISIS, and the West has not properly armed or equipped them. One wonders what they could have done with all the armored vehicles and weaponry the Iraqi Army left behind for ISIS.

A good step in the right direction would be to give the Kurds everything they need. But that’s only a step on a much longer path ahead if the human agony we are witnessing in the Middle East is to ever be stopped.

What is going on here is a slow motion train wreck caused by the United States’ refusal to lead a coalition of the willing into delivering decisive military intervention in the Middle East. Instead, the half-measures and over-reliance on a dysfunctional Iraqi Army and Iranian-backed Shia militias has only prolonged the anguish of countless innocents now living under ISIS rule. These were the very people for whom American blood was shed for so many years the previous decade. Now, we have thrown them to the wolves, and their suffering is our shame. The longer the West continues to half-heartedly fight this war—a war against an energized and dedicated foe—the more civilians will perish in horrifying ways. To not intervene decisively will only ensure their blood is on the West’s hands. History will not forget the abandonment of these defenseless people, and the global implications of our betrayal of them will linger for generations.

 

John R Bruning

 

 

Categories: Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Hero My Town Lost

306273_2047422068476_1350649_nIn August 2009, Specialist Taylor Marks was killed by an Iranian-made EFP roadside bomb emplaced on a bridge in downtown Baghdad only a short distance away from an Iraqi Police checkpoint. Killed with him was Sergeant Earl Werner, a veteran of OIF II and the Oregon National Guard’s relief efforts in New Orleans following Katrina. I did not know Sergeant Werner, but I knew of him. Taylor, on the other hand, was like family to me. Before he left our little Oregon town, he had routinely babysat my kids. He introduced my son to LEGO’s and showed them you could set stuff on fire with a magnifying lens and some sunlight. That was the Puckish side of him–he liked to push boundaries, but never so far that he got out of line. His teen age rebellion consisted of exploring abandoned buildings at night, playing with fireworks, and building modified potato guns that could fire simulated RPG’s at 2-162 Infantry’s Humvees during drill weekends.

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Taylor armed with one of his RPG simulators at Fort Lewis in June 2008, his last volunteer OPFOR drill weekend before leaving for Basic Training.

He was a brilliant young man who had earned a scholarship to the University of Oregon, where he planned to become an Asian Studies major. But after meeting me and my band of rag-tag civilians who role-played bad guys for the Guard and law enforcement, Taylor chose a path of service. He joined the Guard straight out of high school and was training to be a military intelligence specialist when the 41st Brigade departed Oregon for its pre-deployment work up at Camp Shelby in the spring of 2009. Taylor originally had orders to attend the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, but the 41st was so short handed those were changed at the last minute. Instead, he was pulled into the 82nd Cav and assigned to be an MRAP driver.

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Taylor’s senior prom night. I let him have my Pontiac GTO for the night. He’s one of about six people to have driven the car, and it escorted his remains home from the airport, then to Willamette National in 2009. The GTO will never leave my family as a result.

He reached Oregon in early June of 2009 having not fired a weapon in months. During one of our OPFOR drill weekends at Camp Rilea, Oregon, I asked some of the NCO’s there if they could get Taylor some range time since he’d missed almost all the pre-deployment training with his new unit. About two weeks later, Taylor was sent to Camp Shelby just in time to help his unit pack up and head out the door for Iraq. He was killed in action six weeks later.

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The 973rd Civlians on the Battlefield (COB). Taylor is standing at top right.

His death in combat was one of those terrible turning points in my life. I lost a young man who’d become a major part of my family’s life, whose life had been set on the path to Iraq by his association with me. Intellectually, I knew his death was not my fault. But in my heart I knew that had I not drawn him into my group of civilian volunteers and introduced him to the National Guard, he’d have gone off to college like so many other young men. My heart will always be burdened with that guilt, and it took me almost five years to reconcile and accept that burden of responsibility. I also learned that the pain of loss never goes away; it just becomes a part of you that either you accept and live with, or it will torment and destroy you. It was a toss up which way it would go with me for a long time. Part of me went to Afghanistan to tempt Fate. If God wanted to take Taylor, then take me too. He didn’t. I came home, and Taylor didn’t, and for a long time that made his loss even harder to bear. It colored every day, and for a long time, it took down much of the best parts of my life. In my eulogy of him, I promised to live my life for him, as adventurous and wide open as he had led his. I took that vow as sacred, and have tried to live up to it, but there were times in the first years after his death that I very nearly gave in to the grief and guilt.

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Gerald Johnson (at right). MIA October 7, 1945. He was lost in a typhoon off the coast of Japan less than a week before he was supposed to rotate home. He’d survived over 1200 combat hours and 265 missions in three tours that spanned the Aleutians, New Guinea and the Philippines.

In the 1990’s, I became very close to 49th Fighter Group ace Colonel Gerald R. Johnson’s widow, Barbara. Like Taylor, she had become part of my extended family, and had even been part of my wedding party in 1993. While writing first my M/A thesis on her beloved husband, then the book Jungle Ace, my time with her was precious and life-changing. It was also the first time I really began to understand the magnitude of such a loss. Five decades had passed since she had lost Gerald at war’s end, but his death had altered the landscape of her life so profoundly she lived in its shadow for the rest of her life. The grief never went away. Time does not heal all wounds. In Barbara’s case, it perhaps dulled the pain a little bit, but it was always there in her eyes.

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Shilo Battlefield.

So this Memorial Day, there will be countless pundits speaking of the “ultimate sacrifice” and the bravery of our warrior heroes. Sacrifice will be so overused that it will lose its meaning. For me, Memorial Day has become a reminder of pain, of my own experience with loss, of the pain I saw in Barbara’s eyes and so many others whom I’ve met over the years who lost a beloved family member to war and violence. I will remember the elderly neighbor we had when we first came to Independence. She lived alone and was very isolated from the community. When I came to her door canvassing for a political cause, she welcomed me inside and we talked for quite a long time. She had married young, during WWII, to her high school sweetheart. Before he left for overseas service, they had a daughter together. He was killed in action, and she never remarried. What was the point, she had said to me. Her Love had died. She focused on raising her daughter and lived the rest of her life in quiet loneliness, waiting to be reunited with her Soldier.

I am typing these words right now in the Saratoga Public Library in Saratoga, California. I grew up here in the heart of the Silicon Valley back in the 70’s and early 80’s. This library was my refuge, and it was here that my love of history and writing took hold and flourished. I spent countless hours after school here, reading everything the library had collected on World War II, lost in the romance and adventure of air battles, aces and the nobility of service.231185_1554810130556_8171780_n

I look back now and realize that I never understood the reality of combat and what that does to the human soul. It took losing Taylor and seeing the fighting in Afghanistan for me to catch a clue and glimpse that reality. Now I understand that the death of a warrior is not only the end of a life and the destruction of so much potential, but the turning point in every life close to the lost Soldier’s. That death will have a cascading effect on those left behind that is rarely discussed or understood. For the Johnson family, Gerald’s death led to such anguish that his twin brother Harold ultimately took his own life. The shock of that led to his father’s death only a few weeks later. For me, it was the end of what I call my old life and so much in it that I loved. My sense of family changed forever, I lost friends and relationships. Like so many others, the death of an American warrior redrew the fabric of life back home. The ripples of loss spread across families, neighborhoods, communities. One by one, they redraw the face of America until, by war’s end, we find ourselves a changed nation.

When I think of Taylor now, I think of all that our nation lost when that EFP took his life. Had he lived, what amazing things he could have done with his mind and talent. The way he could have added to our collective experience, the way he would have found meaning in his life surely would have led to the betterment of the world in some small but notable way. His was one of thousands of lives cut short since the towers fell, one drop in an ocean of lost potential torn from us by an enemy who would strike at our children and our own homes if given a chance. Devoted men and women who believe in our nation’s exceptionalism and have the courage of their convictions to stand strong in the maelstrom of combat are among America’s most valuable souls. On this Memorial Day, as we mourn for those we lost, let us hope our nation’s leaders remember their value and pledge to ensure that when they are called to battle again in the future, the cause is the measure of their commitment.

 

To all of you hurting on this Memorial Day Weekend, all I can say is don’t lose the Faith. If you do, our nation is lost.

 

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2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, Oregon National Guard. Camp Rilea, October 2008. Mobilization Day for the unit’s second deployment to Iraq.

 

 

 

 

Below is the eulogy I gave at Specialist Taylor Marks’ memorial service in Independence, Oregon in September 2009.

 

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Over a century ago, Walt Whitman wrote of his experiences in the Civil War, and its aftermath.

To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird
With pure deliberate notes spreading, filling the night.

Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist and the swamp perfume,
And I with my comrades, there in the night.

While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed
As to long panoramas of visions.

And I saw askant the armies,
I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags,
Borne through the smoke of the battles and pierc’d with missiles, I saw them.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not.
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain suffer’d.

Taylor Marks made the transition from boy to man, first by training soldiers, then by joining them in battle. During this cornerstone period in his young life, I had the singular joy, pride and kinship to be touched by Taylor’s bright and dawning spirit.

Winston Churchill, not the statesman, but the American novelist, wrote about how disorienting this voyage from child to man can be.

At all events, when I look back upon the boy I was, I see the beginnings of a real person who fades little by little as manhood arrives and advances, until suddenly I am aware that a stranger has taken his place.

No stranger ever took Taylor’s place. To his last breath, he remained gentle of heart, loyal to those he loved, faithful to our Lord, and true to the values he had established long ago, thanks to the guidance of his family. He never lost his idealism. His spirit was never tarnished with bitterness or regret. He loved the Guard and his blossoming role within it. Unlike Churchill’s character, he negotiated the path to adulthood not to look into a mirror and see a stranger, but to see the eyes of the man he wanted to become. What a gift. So few of us get there, especially so fast, that I found myself in awe of Taylor.

Two things brought Taylor and I together: a Christmas card and a ballroom dance class. These two disparate moments in our lives formed the nucleus of our bond. In the months that followed, it was solidified and nurtured through shared misery and the sheer uniqueness of our common goals.

In December of 2007, I was sitting on my couch. My then six year old boy, Eddie, was nestled next to me, babbling on about all the World War II airplanes he wanted for Christmas. My wife Jennifer, handed me a beige envelope. It was a Christmas card from Ken Leisten Sr. Kenny, his son, was killed on July 28, 2004 in the Sunni Triangle. I wrote about him in The Devil’s Sandbox, and every July, I go to Willamette National to be with Vince Jacques and the rest of Kenny’s platoon to celebrate his life.

I sat and read this card  from a man who had lost his only son, while my only son’s arms were tight around me. I started to cry, partly for Ken’s loss, but also for my own utter selfishness.

What had I done to see that no other father loses his boy? I had reams of tactical information on the enemy from the books I’d researched and written. Time had come to put it to use.

The previous May, Brad Bakke, Aaron Allen and I had role played insurgents during an Alpha Company, 2-162 Infantry drill weekend. Being an insurgent was brutal. I was sick for a month afterward.

Alpha Company asked us back for the January drill. I said I’d be there with a group ready to be abused.

At the time, I’d been asked to teach a ballroom dance section in a PE class at Central High. Most of the kids weren’t really all that into learning how to swing and waltz, but I noticed one kid had game. Every period, he came eager to learn, willing to give something new a try, and seemed devoid of self-consciousness and immune to the vibe sent out by his peers that this just wasn’t cool.

That was Taylor. He had these absolutely bizarre sideburns and chin fuzz that made me wonder if he’d taken the pilgrim section in his history class a little too seriously. But that could be, and later was, shaved. What moved me about this kid were his eyes—dark and wide, they radiated curiosity. They had depth and a sort of grace found only in much older men totally at peace with themselves. I saw in their depth, keen intelligence and a thirst to explore the world.

I didn’t see selfishness. I didn’t see a sense of entitlement. I didn’t see a kid who’d succumbed to pop culture’s fixation on the superficial or the material.

And I also sensed a bit of Puckishness in him. I liked that. I liked that a lot.

Just before Christmas vacation, I assembled the class and told them I was forming a group dedicated to helping train 2-162 Infantry for its next combat deployment overseas. I told them we would be roughed up, we’d be working in all manner of weather conditions, and we would be taxed to the utmost of our endurance. I didn’t sugarcoat this. I made it clear it would be a challenge, but one with tremendous rewards. Our goal: prepare those who fight so that every one of them comes home to their families.

Taylor was all over this. He wanted in, and was willing to bring friends. I checked with my wife, who had Taylor in her math class, and she gave me the thumbs up. Outstanding kid, good grades, sense of responsibility. He would not goof off.

Taylor brought Gaelen Bradley into our group. As the January drill approached, we wanted to make a statement to the Oregon Guard that we would not be your average weekend enemy force, or OPFOR. I scheduled us to support two companies: Alpha down in Eugene, and Charlie at Camp Whithycombe up in Clackamas.  To pull this off, we’d need to go all weekend with minimal sleep.

That Saturday rolled around, and I kept Taylor and Gaelen close to me in the shoot house at Goshen. Each fire team through the door had to make a split-second decision based on our reactions to them: greet us as friends, detain us as suspects, or shoot us as hostile insurgents.

When Sergeant Alan Ezelle first told us to be hostile and resist detention, I watched Taylor get slammed face-down into concrete and broken glass. After that iteration, I thought he’d be done. He got up grinning. Gave me a thumbs up and grabbed one of our training AK-47’s, and made ready to give the next fire team.

It started to rain. Then it snowed. The shoot house has no roof, and the concrete floor soon was slick and covered with icy puddles. None of us had the sense to wear cold weather gear. Taylor’s teeth chattered. His lips turned blue. I told him to go take a break and get warm. He said, “Hell no. Bring it.”

And so it went. Fire team after fire team. Squad after squad. Taylor was dumped, dragged, shot at with blanks at close range, and generally pummeled into submission. Sergeant Ezelle didn’t make us friendly local nationals that often, so we did a lot of fighting in the snow that day. We learned one of the nuances of being an enemy force in training: you’ve got to bring the appropriate level of violence to each squad based on their level of experience and ability. As they learned and got better, Sergeant Ezelle had us ratchet up our resistance.

When the day ended, Soldiers came to us and thanked us. “You’re the most realistic OPFOR we’ve ever had.” Others said, “That’s the best training weekend I’ve had since joining the Guard.” We would hear that a lot in the months that followed, and every time such words served as rocket fuel to our motivation.

That evening, sore, stiff and soaking wet, we climbed into our cars and drove home, changed, then sped to Withycombe in time to dig shallow firing positions and execute night ambushes on Charlie Company. We finished at 3:30 that morning. Taylor was still grinning.

By the end of the weekend, our group had put in 37 hours and had impressed 2-162 enough to give us civilians a role at every field drill. Taylor and Gaelen, and Bethany Jones and Shaun Phillips set the standard for our group.

We incorporated as a non-profit called the 973rd COB—Civilians on the Battlefield. In the months to come, we spent out of our own pockets tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, clothing, and training devices. SimplyIslam.com must have wondered if a Mosque had opened up in Polk County after all the orders we placed for Arabic clothing. My office is so heaped with training AK-47’s, RPK’s, and other gear that it has become known as the Unawriter’s Lair.

When Taylor saw Alpha Company had limited access to training IED’s, he and Shaun Phillips went to work. They built simulated car bombs that when detonated, touched off a siren. When nine soldiers were killed or wounded entering an Al Qaida safe house in Iraq in early 2008, I got word from a friend over there that the place had been wired with an IR-triggered bomb that went off when the door was breached. Taylor and Shaun constructed a duplicate, and we employed this tactic against Alpha Company so they could develop counters to it.

When we started ambushing Humvee convoys at Rilea, we didn’t have access to simulated rocket propelled grenade launchers. The dreaded RPG’s. Taylor went off and built two. I’ll never forget the first time we tested one of them. We were down at Riverview Park. We wanted a projectile that would travel far enough to be useful and make a loud enough noise on impact to let the Soldiers in the Humvees know they’d been hit. At the same time, we didn’t want to use anything that could cause an injury. That is an engineering challenge way beyond me.

Taylor came up with miniature nerf footballs as ammo, squished and wrapped in duct tape. I was skeptical, and dared him to hit my GTO from about 200 feet. I got in and drove it at a steady clip, and he let loose on me.

THUNK! The Goat shuddered so hard I thought the whole right side had been bashed in. Taylor had hit the Pontiac’s real quarter panel. That was the last time we used my muscle car for target practice. Taylor’s stuff worked, and it worked in the field because he designed them to be rugged. He paid for all the materials out of his own pocket, with money that he earned from his job at the Chevron station on 22.

Every drill weekend, Taylor was there, setting a quiet example with his relentless work ethic. As he came to understand the Soldiers and what they would face in the months to come, he grew ever more dedicated. At Rilea, and at Goshen, we didn’t leave the field until the last Soldier had come off the lanes. Taylor was almost always the last man off with me.

He came to respect, then revere the NCO’s who worked with us. Sergeant Ezelle, Sergeant Hambright, Sergeant Cochran—they became Taylor’s role models. He saw in them a willingness to confront evil on distant shores. He saw in them the consummate professional NCO—capable teachers, disciplined human beings, and men capable of telling a story or two about their wild days.

Taylor asked me to be one of his mentors on his senior project, which he produced on our group. I was honored, and he’d come over to my office and we’d have some pretty serious heart to heart talks. He’d received a scholarship to the U of O and had been set on a course much like mine at his age: college, dorm life, the intellectual challenge of academia.

But he found his true calling with us. The combat arms of the U.S. military represents one tenth of one percent of our population. The fate of nations—our nation—rests on so precious few who are willing to bear this burden and forgo the advantages of an average civilian life.

As he saw the commitment 2-162’s men shared, he felt it grow within him. Once, at Andy’s, he wondered out loud how he could go to college when something so much larger needed good young men.

When he defended his senior project, I sat in the back of the classroom and felt like the proudest parent in the world. He nailed it, too, by the way.

That spring, the 973rd assembled the most outrageous and diverse group of individuals I’ve ever been associated with. Everyone understood the importance of the mission and took our responsibility in every field exercise very seriously. But along the way, the unexpected happened. We went from strangers to family in a drill weekend.

I always wanted an extended family. My own back in California is a mess, and I always sort of felt alone and left out of something most others share.

The 973rd became my crazy, boisterous, clan, bonded by the oddity of our undertaking, and the scores of hours spent in the bushes with each other waiting to ambush the next patrol. Taylor became a brother, a son. So did all our young men—Spencer, Joe, Andrew, Aaron, Gaelen—just to name a few. Joey became our spiritual center—irreverent yes, but a shoulder and an ear for everyone—including Taylor. Mark Farley our XO, balanced us, kept the peace when things got rough. I was the leader, always demanding that we be better than perfect on every iteration.  And Jones too care of us all.

One day, that spring, Taylor asked me to hook him up with a recruiter I trusted. I gave him a copy of the Devil’s Sandbox and told him to read it. He came back, more resolved than ever. I wanted him to know—to understand what was at stake and the perils of the warrior profession. I gave him House to House. He read it and badgered me some more.

I was too slow for him. He went and got a recruiter on his own. Sergeant Ben Taylor played it absolutely straight with Taylor. But I completely freaked out. In front of my kids, I called Ben and tore into him and screamed things to him I’ve never said to another human being. I was protecting my cub. I later sat down with Ben and his boss, Colonel Myer, and found that my preconceptions were all wrong. Ben is a compassionate, dedicated member of the Oregon Guard, and he came to love Taylor as much as the rest of us. Ben is one of the most honest and straight human beings I’ve ever known.

After Taylor scored a 98 out of 99 on the ASVAB, he found a way for Taylor to use his love of language and Asian culture for the benefit of the Guard. He was set to go become an interrogator and a linguist, with Cantonese and Japanese as his specialties. Ben’s stewardship sent Taylor’s morale through the roof.

School was coming to an end, and I wanted Taylor’s final weeks to be memorable. That spring, during an Alpha Company drill at Goshen, he dragged his white sedan down to the range to be used as an obstacle the Soldiers would have to search.

What kind of a high school kid offers up his wheels for a training exercise? I never would have been so gracious. The car took a beating, and Taylor never once complained.

To honor that, I let him borrow my GTO so he and Gaelen could double date to the Senior Prom. Aside from my wife, who keeps breaking it, Taylor was the only other person to drive this car. That Pontiac means a lot to me. It was the first totally frivolous thing I’d ever purchased in my adult life. Up until recently, we never had the resources to be frivolous, we were lucky to keep our house. My wife had faith that I could make it to New York as a writer—and she was the only one who kept that faith—and the GTO became my reminder of our shared success.

Taylor treated my Goat with reverence. I gave him the keys, told him to keep it under eighty—yeah right—and have fun. Later that night, I grabbed the family and piled into our other Pontiac. “Where are we going?” Jenn asked. “Gonna check on the Goat.” I said.

That was the first time I’d ever been in the Green Villa Barn’s parking lot. The senior prom was held here. A year later, we’ve returned to the location of one his best high school memories to honor what he has meant to us.

Now, we are left to grieve. Thank God I don’t have to do that alone. The 973rd gathered Friday night to share this trauma equally. We visited Taylor’s family, and Michelle, Don, Morrey and Courtney—with your grace and gentle spirits you gave us the greatest gift one human can bestow on another: the ability to heal from this loss. Had we not come together as we had, had I not felt the warmth of your embrace and heard the things Taylor said of me from your own voices, I would have been done. The guilt, the pain—it would have been too much. Instead, your open home, and your open hearts laid cornerstone for a new beginning for all of us.

You also gained my extended family, my clan. Courtney, you now have a big sister in Jones and twenty older brothers. If your boyfriend breaks up with you, call us. We’ll go beat him up. This connection will bind us forever.

That connection began Taylor became one of our own. He babysat my little boy and little girl. He taught them to melt stuff with a magnifying glass, and now I have two pyromaniacs who go nuts on the 4th of July. That’s okay, so do I. He showed them how to use my treadmill for things other than exercise.

One day, he brought a big tub full of Legos over to my office. We’d never given Eddie Legos before, which Taylor thought was appalling. So he gave my boy his childhood collection. Overnight, Eddie went from a WWII airplane fanatic to a Lego-obsessed construction foreman. My office became a cityscape, complete with sharks eating Indiana Jones and elaborate space ships docked on my furniture. Just walking around without puncturing a foot on these things became a challenge. A year and a half later, Eddie’s urge for Legos has only grown. That’s all he wants for birthdays and Christmas now, and we’ve grown Taylor’s original collection significantly, partly because one of my other adopted sons, Andrew Bowder, contributed his childhood sets to the cause as well. Someday, I hope Eddie’s son will play with them, too. Grandpa’s job will be to tell him about Taylor.

We spent a year with the 2-162 and participated in every field exercise here in Oregon as they prepared to go to Iraq. We learned how to test each squad. We exploited mistakes so we could impart lessons. We figured out gaps in fields of fire and helped each squad hone their skills so such errors were ironed out here, where it didn’t count, instead of learning them with casualties on the battlefield. We earned the respect of every Soldier who went through our lanes.

About two weeks ago, I heard from Sergeant Ezelle. He’s in Iraq now, and I asked him if our group really made a contribution, and what we could do to improve for the next unit we help train. Easy wrote back, “You helped my men more than your group will ever know. Thank you.” From a two deployment veteran, that meant everything. He also added, “You need to start charging the Guard.” Never. We will never take a dime.

We now support other elements of the Guard, as well as the state police, local law enforcement and SWAT Teams. What Taylor helped found has grown beyond all our expectations. And we stand ready to help prepare those who fight anytime, anywhere.

Forming and leading the 973rd has been the most meaningful experience of my life. If we helped to save one Soldier’s life, there is nothing greater any of us will ever accomplish.

From our group, four of our young men—my adopted sons—have either joined the military, or are in the process. I live in fear of another day like this one, but at the same time I am so proud. They saw what Taylor did when we worked alongside the men of 2-162.

As Taylor prepared to leave, we sat down for lunch at Andy’s again.
I told him that he stood on the threshold of his life. The pages ahead were unwritten—he just needed to write the story. Seize, it. Go be great. Don’t lie down and succumb to the mediocrity of a life half-lived.

No worries there. Taylor was already headed that way. He was a special man, with talent, potential and drive to lead him anywhere he wanted to go. And one thing for sure, he was destined for a significant life. Where he wanted to go was into the fight, to be a member of that one tenth of one percent that keeps us safe and fights to liberate the world of all its evils. He offered his life—he didn’t give it. It was taken away by evil so vile it has scorched us all.

He lived far more in his nineteen short years than most of us will in eighty. He did so with the same wide open heart that we found in his family.

His pages will remain unwritten. And I’ve been wondering how I will survive that.

Let his spirit be our guide. Taylor went into life wide open to it. He reveled in a challenge, chased dreams and flung himself into whatever task absorbed him. There’s nothing ordinary about that.

I will live. And I will go into every day with Taylor never far from my mind. I will match his zest and daring, and I am not going to sink into the mundane. This life we all continue to share—Taylor has shown us just how precious and fleeting it is. We don’t know how many pages we have left to write in our own stories. We have to treat each one as a miracle. So, I will challenge all of you today, rise to this occasion, take with you Taylor’s spirit, and sally forth into the world with his unbeatable optimism and sense of adventure. Let it carry you to new places, let it lead you to new relationships, and may you be always be open to the wonder and beauty of this extraordinary planet.

Don’t let your job or career define you, and force you into a workaday rut that never allows for the majesty of a sunset shared with one you love. Instead, take the road less traveled, the one Taylor chose. He refused to let the world define him. He stayed true to his childhood identity even as he came to manhood. That takes a powerful, unique spirit, and it is a soul to emulate.

The successes I will have in the future, will be Taylor’s as well. He will spur me on when I’m fatigued. He will nudge me when I fall in a rut. I will dare when once I would have been cautious. And I will fill my pages for him. And when it comes time for my eulogy, let the world know that I lived true to my own soul.

That is how I will survive.

Just before Taylor left, he sent me a text message from the Blackberry he always was fooling with. “John, Thank you. That day at Central—it has changed my life for I believe the better, and no matter what happens from here, I want you to know I think it was one of the coolest decisions I have ever been able to make. I can’t wait to be OPFOR again when I get back. See you in ten months.”

We won’t see Taylor in ten months. Our reunion has been delayed, but rest assured, there will be one.

Moxley Sorrel, who served as Robert E. Lee’s chief of staff, penned these words as he tried to speak of his love for his men.
For my part, when the time comes to cross the river like the others, I shall be found asking at the gates above, “Where is the Army of Northern Virgnia?” For there I make my camp.

When I cross that river, I will find the bivouac of the Oregon Guard, because I know my brothers and sisters of the 973rd will not be far away. And there, between the two camps, I will find Taylor.

 

Categories: Iraq War 2003-2010, Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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