1. November 7, 2011.
Bears at Eagles, Monday Night Football. A young man wearing the Army’s digital camouflage holds a young boy in the crook of his left arm. His wife has pale skin and a striking head of magenta hair. She holds their other young son in her arms. The even-toned voice of Mike Tirico urges viewers to donate to the USO. “That just happened here at Lincoln Financial Field. That’s a family reunion, one of our troops who’s come back home – family on the sidelines to see them and surprise them,” Tirico says.
Similar scenes played out in every NFL stadium last weekend. Such gestures have become common practice at pro sporting events of every size and scope, between innings or during TV timeouts: here are some veterans, standing ovation, back to the game. Play ball.
In the three-hour Monday Night Football telecast, the segment dedicated to the USO and troops in uniform lasts 38 seconds.
2. November 3, 2011.
November is a bad time for one of the Marines I went to Iraq with. Jack* and I usually converse about fantasy football, but our Facebook messaging about rosters abruptly shifts to the sixth anniversary of Operation Steel Curtain. Jack was a tank commander supporting the infantry during the violent fighting along the Syrian border during the fall of 2005, a campaign known to many Marines as the “Forgotten Fallujah” for its scant press coverage. He writes to me:
A house that 5 Marines stacked on to enter exploded. The insurgents fired on them from an inside blind and dropped grenades off the roof to kill them before they broke inside to clear. Lt. McGlothlin’s last radio transmission was to me…….”Tiger 2, we need you up here”……then he was dead. I pulled my tank up in front of the building to see their dead and bleeding carcasses. 3 Marines were still alive, and one was trying to put out the fire on his cammies. Then the Muj dropped 5 grenades down on them, and killed them all. I was so fucking helpless, I punched the inside of my turret until I bled. I screamed at the top of my lungs. Once I knew they were all down, I pumped 50 Cal into the building to keep their heads down and chew up what I could. To my left I watched a rescue team develop, and I ceased fire to let them recover the bodies of the dead. Once they cleared my front slope, I let loose about 9 HEAT rounds into that building. 19 insurgents died by my hand that day, and I failed. I failed, because grunts died.
From there, we trade text messages. I try to tell him that everything he feels is normal and justified. When he tells me “I’d rather be dead than them men,” I call him. It’s after midnight.
I text him back: “No way. I’d rather live with guilt and bad memories than be dead. Dead folks don’t get drunk or laid.”
A few minutes later, he calls me back. Steel Curtain was bad fucking news, man. The mech company commander – beloved by his Marines and family – stepped on a double-stacked land mine, and half of his dead body landed on the front of Jack’s tank. But there was a mission to accomplish, and in the Marine Corps, nothing comes before the mission. Jack went into battle with the major’s blood on his tank.
What do you say to that? I tell Jack he stands shoulder to shoulder with Marine heroes, with Dan Daly and Smedley Butler and a host of names that mean nothing to people who weren’t Marines. And I believe it: Jack is rough-edged, impervious to danger, and the only vehicle he ever loved more than his Harley was his tank. He will be forgotten by history, but not by anyone who knows him.
We make plans for a visit, which makes me feel like maybe he’s not going to kill himself. Before we get off the phone, I tell him, “It’s a shitty life, but it beats the hell out of being dead.”
The phone call lasts 33 minutes. I hang up and sob.
* Not his real name.
3. October 16, 2011.
Pembroke, Massachusetts. The houses on the country lane are tucked among still-green trees away from the road, so Jenny and I drive past the McPhillips residence twice before we spot the address. It’s a split-level red house in the process of being repainted; the back yard is filled with soft, lush grass that stretches for a hundred yards until the woods begin.
I have never met David McPhillips, but he greets us warmly and apologizes that his wife Julie can’t be here. He has bright blue eyes—less hauntingly pale than his son’s—and has the ruddy, clean-shaven face you expect of a New Englander. In the pictures taken at the White House, where David and Julie were invited after Brian’s death, David wears a mustache that makes him look like Tom Skerritt.
He gives me many things: newspaper clippings; a black satchel with a Marine Corps emblem I remember Brian carrying to class every day at Fort Knox; a foldable Gerber knife; a mug from the Marine Corps Birthday Ball that Brian organized; a New England Patriots hat; and the spent “afcap“ of an M1A1 tank main gun round, which Jenny and I now use as a doorstop. We look at the photo albums that Brian created for David, and I’m shocked to see how young I am in them. Brian’s age.
Feeling brave or perhaps foolish, I tell David that Brian’s death could have been prevented if the officers above him had had the sense to lead with armor instead of unprotected Humvees.
He smiles in spite of the pain. “Brian was 15 or 16 when I took him to Gettysburg,” he says. ”We were standing at the same wall where the Maine volunteers held the line against Pickett’s charge, and I said to him, ‘Is this worth it? To die here for a cause with an uncertain ending? Or would you rather go back to your farm to live out the last 15 or 20 years of your life?’ And Brian looked at me and said”—David points to the ground—”’Right here, Dad. Right here.’”
Jenny and I leave after three hours.
4. October 15, 2011.
Concord, Massachusetts. I’ve never been to Brian’s grave before.
Because lines of communication were so tangled during the rush to Baghdad, Brian was buried before I even knew he was dead. I found out in some garbage-strewn field after my battalion left Baghdad, and I sat down immediately to write his parents a letter. I didn’t know them, but their son had been my best friend for four lousy months at the Armor Officer Basic Course in Kentucky. Brian was exacting, demanding, and embodied the high standards he expected of everyone else in uniform. He was an impossible asshole, and that was his charm.
It’s a four-hour drive from New York to Concord, and another four back. I stand at Brian’s grave for five or maybe fifteen minutes, wondering what he might be like at age 33, instead of a pile of bones. Jenny hands me a Kleenex.
5. October 4, 2011.
In the midst of a growing media shitstorm regarding then-Vikings wide receiver Bernard Berrian, I reach out to Minnesota state representative John Krisesel, the double-amputee vet whose Twitter exchange with Berrian had prompted me to write a satire of it.
I ask for Kriesel’s help as a go-between, hoping to find a way around an inept PR flack to set up an interview with Berrian. In my e-mail to Kriesel, I use a quote from General Peter Pace, whose son I went to college with and helped me decide to join the Marines:
There are those who speak about you who say, ‘He lost an arm, he lost a leg, she lost her sight.‘ I object. You gave your arm; you gave your leg; you gave your sight as gifts to your nation, that we might live in freedom. Thank you. And to your families, families of the fallen, and families of the wounded, you sacrificed in ways that those of us who have not walked in your shoes can only imagine.
I wait three weeks for a response. By the time Kriesel gets back to me, the Vikings have released Berrian, and the stress I suffered from a legal threat feels distant and small.
6. September 4, 2011.
Staten Island Yankees at Brooklyn Cyclones. It’s the final game of the season for the Single-A team in Coney Island, and the PA announcer calls our attention to the veterans on the field. There are three honorees: an ancient WWII or Korean War vet, someone who’d been in the Navy during Vietnam, and an attractive young woman presently in the Coast Guard.
None of them have set foot in Iraq or Afghanistan. I don’t know whether to be disappointed or respectful or jealous that I’m not getting my due.
The ceremony lasts maybe a minute. My sarcastic clapping for the Coast Guard sailor could go on forever.
7. November 11, 2011.
I’ll be taking the day off. I don’t want thanks. I don’t want a parade. I don’t want my experience boiled down to 30 seconds so it can be easily digestible to a national audience. I will want to talk to the handful of people I know who can understand what it’s like to run over a vehicle with an M1A1 tank like the world is a sunbeaten, bullet-riddled monster truck rally.
I don’t begrudge sporting events their brief nods to veterans; a brief, pro forma remembrance is better than no remembrance at all. But that sanitized teaspoon of patriotism shouldn’t obscure the grim reality of theveteran suicide epidemic or increased domestic violence or rampant alcohol abuse or skyrocketing divorce rates for veterans returning to their families. Not everyone comes back broken, but nobody comes back whole.
The echoes of war last a lifetime.