Another Memorial Day arrives and like most weekends and holidays, I will be working . When passengers board my commercial airliner, many are confused between the two holidays, Memorial and Veterans weekend, so with my short hair and Marine Corps lanyard I hear a lot of things like “Happy Memorial Day” to which I reply “come see me on Veterans Day.”
For me on Memorial Day, I usually give pause and think about the guys I knew who are now gone. The horrors of war that are tucked away, not discussed with friends or spouses. During the time I spent over in Iraq and Afghanistan , pulling the trigger against the enemy was not something I experienced. That can be a good thing but then you sometimes wish for extreme payback to an enemy who has hurt your friends through their cowardly actions using IED’s.
When Iraq comes to mind, it sometimes feels like yesterday, but then I realize that it was almost seven ago which is eons to my kids who barely remember me being gone. It’s a good thing they didn’t see the tears from their mother when she found out that I had volunteered to serve over there just as thousands of others had done. A scene probably played out in many households across our nation.
American’s have left for war across the world or have volunteered to serve knowing that at any minute a conflict could come up that requires them to face the very real possibility of taking another human’s life or being killed in the process. It’s not something we talk about to others or amongst ourselves. You just pray that when the time comes, God gives you the strength to do the right thing and take care of your brothers in arms.
My tour in Iraq was interesting to say the least. As the Assistant Air Boss at Al Taqaddum, I was never outside the wire kicking in doors (like the young guys did), but we were around for the aftermath of their patrols most of the time. Our mission was to launch the rescue CH-46’s to pick up those who were wounded and more often than not we would end up helping the wounded in some fashion since the hospital was next door to our tower.
One day in particular stands out. I had our best Sgt. on the desk one afternoon when I left for chow. It was a long hot miserable walk to the chow hall, made worse since the Colonel and I were required to carry our “Brick” radio everywhere so that we could be reached at a moments notice and this thing was huge!
On the way home, the radio crackled “Sir, are you up?” Since the Colonel was on leave in the states, I knew it was me he needed.
“I’m here, what’s going on Sgt. K?” The sun was burning down on me as my boots plowed through the fine dust wondering what our troublesome Lance Corporal had done this time.
“Sir, we have a MASS CASS (massive causalities) on the way.” His voice very calm over the radio. He didn’t know if they were arriving by air or ground or how many so I detoured to the hospital as the call came in that they were at the North Entry Control Point inbound, but he still no idea how many. I needed to put eyeballs on the situation to cut out the confusion that usually follows.
This is one of those things that will get your heart pumping, not knowing how many. It could be just a few or a ton of guys you are talking about and the exact number determines how many CH-46’s you have to launch and whether or not you need to break crew rest for more helo lift. A whole slew of considerations on getting the fastest medical evacuation service to our troops.
I arrived at the side entrance, a large unloading spot to the hospital with about 12 staff members milling about smartly. They were all on hand because you really don’t know what you have until the doors open up. We heard that an Army team was ambushed in their Bradley and blown up with a particularly nasty IED mixed with a sort of napalm concoction. Everyone was pretty tense with only nervous banter being thrown about, especially from the new Sailor standing next to me.
The ambulance arrived, turned around and backed up. The loud diesel engine shut off followed by the doors flying open and a silence settled over the group of us standing there. Slowly, the first of four forms materialized out of the back. He was burned beyond anything I had ever seen. The skin was dripping off him in places. His ears were gone along with his nose. Pieces of his gear melted into his body and flesh charred. His guttural cries as he moved inch by inch out of the ambulance. The young Sailor next to me vomited into the top of a small Hesco barrier that was filled with dirt when the overpowering smell of burnt flesh hit him. The nurses were trying to be gentle with them, tears in their eyes as the Doctors and orderlies assisted their movement to the ER. This was no doubt a horrible one as each Soldier looked as bad as the first. Lots of emotions flash through my mind, none of them I’m able to express without being tossed out of the Marine Corps or attacked by CAIR .
This really affected everyone standing there that day. These events were barely mentioned later, because as much as you wanted them to survive, you were watching the walking dead (I fear they knew it too).
We lost one there on the ER table, another on the flight to Ballad Air Base in Northern Iraq , followed by a third death over the Atlantic and the fourth Soldier; he succumbed to his injuries and passed on in San Antonio .
That is what I think about when Memorial Day arrives. It’s the service members who will never return to see their families again. The young men and women who volunteered to serve their country with no thought as to their safety, all willing to pay the ultimate price with their lives. That is what this weekend is about so the rest of America can enjoy the time off Monday with friends.
As you tip that cold drink, cook that steak and hang out with your friends, please remember those men and women who have served over the years to give us the freedoms we have. They paid for it with their lives.
To those men and women, and the many hundreds of thousands before them who have passed, gone West and now guarding the gates of heaven, God Bless you for your duty and Godspeed.
ps, this is a repost from last year and one that I feel captures what Memorial day means to me.