Today I visited the grave of a young soldier killed in Iraq, buried in Northern Wisconsin. This trip was somewhat of an act of closure for me. I did not know the young soldier (Paul), nor did I know any of his family members, or any of the soldiers in his unit. In fact, I only learned his identity a few years ago. But this trip was still meaningful for me.
Paul’s tombstone was one of thousands that dotted the Northern Wisconsin’s Veterans Memorial Cemetery. It sits in the newer section and looks very much like the rest of the tombstones. If you look at the picture of the tombstone, you will learn a bit of information about Paul (I’ll not use his full name here.) He was an Army Specialist who served in Iraq. He died young, just eight days past his twenty-first birthday. He had received the Bronze Star and been awarded the Army Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal. And…he was “loved by his family”.
When I look at his birth date (Sep 14, 1982), I realize I was already thirty years-old then, but I can recall exactly where I was on that date. I had just started a four-year assignment in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – nineteen days before he was born. I imagine neither of us never expected to end up in the middle-eastern deserts of Saudi or Iraq.
But it’s the date of his death that brought our random paths together, and brought me to his grave site today. On Sep 22, 2003 we both flew out of Mosul, Iraq in the back of a C-130 aircraft headed for Kuwait. We were both headed home, but it was Paul’s final journey. I sat along the side of the rear cargo bay as Paul’s body-bag was placed gently into the back of the C-130. It was dark except for a small red light in the back of the plane’s bay. Not a word was spoken by me or the other few on the flight. A quiet reverence filled the entire flight. That time has seemed forever sacred to me. The flight was long, and it provided me a serious and somber time to reflect on my own few months in Iraq. What if…What if…What if?
At that time, I had no idea who the young soldier was that had been killed that day in Mosul. Male or female?…Someone I knew?…Someone who had provided security for my civilian team? Who? The ‘not knowing’ haunted me. It was years before I learned of Paul’s identity and that he had been killed by an accidental discharge of a fellow soldier’s weapon that day. The cause of death made little difference…Paul was still dead.
So, what’s my take-away thought today? Paul died young. Young…just like the overwhelming majority of men and women who have died in all our wars. I think that is what makes the death of our soldiers so tragic for the families. Lives were cut short, denied their full potential. Time has now marched on for Paul’s family without him in their lives for sixteen years.
I was reminded of just how young our soldiers are when last summer I had the opportunity to talk with two Vietnam vets from my small Alabama hometown. One had served in the Army in Vietnam just out of high school, only nineteen years old. The other (with the Navy) commanded a small river patrol boat in Vietnam at the age of 20, and was responsible for the lives of his three crew members. I also recalled that my uncle was only 22 when he was killed in Okinawa in 1945. By contrast, at the age of 19, 20 and 22, I was enrolled in college and safely preparing for my career and future.
As a closing thought, it is obvious to me that we should never forget these soldiers who sacrificed and who never returned. Nor should we forget their families who must endure the pain and separation of a life cut short. Likewise, we should honor those who served and did return…for their lives were forever changed and cut short in their own way.
Please remember them all this Memorial Day.