Remembering the price of freedom on Memorial Day
This weekend is Memorial Day in America. It is generally known as the unofficial start of summer, which is true. But it is also the time we recognize our men and women who have given their life in defense of our great nation.
For this occasion I would like to tell the story of Specialist Nathan Fairlie. We were members of 2nd Platoon, B Troop, 6th Squadron 9th United States Cavalry, 3rd Brigade, 1 Cavalry Division.
In the fall of 2006, the soldiers of B Troop boarded planes from Fort Hood, Texas, to deploy to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. We arrived at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Normandy, which would be our home for the next 15 months. This was my second trip to Iraq. As we settled into our modest accommodations at FOB Normandy, I could see, hear and smell Iraq. It kind of shocked me that I was in this place again.
Specialist (Spc.) Nathan Fairlie came to B Troop from the small town of Candor, N.Y. As is custom, a soldier arrives at a new unit from basic training and while doing pushups, gets grilled with a bunch of questions about where they’re from and what they like to do. From one such session came the information that Fairlie was from New York.
I immediately thought of New York City and asked him “You are from New York City?” He said “No sergeant. I’m from the country.”
As a guy who grew up in Columbus, and graduated high school with 33 kids, one of which was my twin brother, my view of New York was definitely not country. But after five minutes with Fairlie, you could definitely see that he was from the country. A few of the guys from B Troop have visited Candor and confirmed that it’s about as small town as you can get.
My relationship to Fairlie was more professional than personal, but as soon as you got to know him, you instantly liked him. He soon became a favorite of everyone in B Troop because of his attitude and personality.
In January of 2007 our troop was moved from FOB Normandy to a place called the DMC — which stood for Diyala Media Center. It was basically a tall radio tower in the middle of nowhere with a fence around it. It was a great place to be if you were ok with not having hot showers for a month at a time.
One of our first missions was to do a reconnaissance of a road named Route Corona. No soldiers had been out in that area in a while and we needed to see what was out there. As we gathered inside the DMC doing our pre-mission brief, the mood was light.
It’s hard to explain, but before we went out on mission, everyone was usually pretty loose and joking around. While everyone took the mission seriously, it’s easier to have a good attitude because once you leave the gate you can’t always control what happens out there.
Of course Fairlie was stealing the show and making everybody laugh with one of his stories. The patrol consisted of three Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFV). The vehicles each had a crew of three — the driver, gunner and the commander.
The best way I ever heard to describe the Bradley was “33 tons of twisted steel and sex appeal, and the worst nightmare of those who oppose freedom around the world.”
There were also two or three soldiers in the back of each BFV called dismounts. Fairlie was the driver of the lead Bradley. I was the commander of one of the Bradleys. My driver and gunner were Private First Class Jeff Bazydlo and Specialist Justin Fitzpatrick.
Our troop had been struck by more IEDs than anyone else. (An IED is basically a roadside bomb) Luckily, we hadn’t sustained any real major injuries. The running joke was that nobody wanted to be next to us on the patrol because we were the “IED magnets.” As the patrol drug on, it was business as usual. Nothing was happening and we wanted to get back to make sure we were able to get “hot chow.” We were probably slightly more on edge that usual because the road was littered with numerous potholes from previous IED blasts.
Thing about Iraq is that it’s not like a movie. It can be hours followed by days of boredom and suddenly out of nowhere it turns into chaos. Insurgents are opportunist. If they don’t have to dig a hole for their IED they won’t do it. They will just use the previous blast holes and cover the IED up with some dirt.
As we wove our way around IED holes, my driver, Bazydlo, mentioned to me how big these blast holes looked. I looked up and saw our lead Bradley, driven by and Fairlie and commanded by Staff Sgt. Matthew Sanders, was moving around a giant hole. For once our enemy decided not to use the previous hole.
The Bradley took a direct hit underneath the driver’s compartment. The blast was large and we could feel the concussion from our spot about 200 yards behind it. I remember large pieces of the 33-ton vehicle flying high into the air. As a crew we had been hit and seen countless numbers of blasts during the deployment. But my gunner, Fitzpatrick, said what we were all thinking in those seconds. “That one doesn’t look good.”
My crew did exactly as it was supposed to and started scanning for enemy as I got on the radio to call our headquarters about the enemy contact. As this was happening, I could see our brave medic, Specialist Greg Dotson, running up to the disabled Bradley and helping Sanders open the driver’s compartment to check on Fairlie. Before he took off his headset with the radio Sanders told me to call it in — which meant a medical evacuation was probably needed. I called in the MEDIVAC. I could see that they had gotten Fairlie out of the Bradley and got him on a stretcher in preparation for the Blackhawk helicopters that would be arriving soon.
Dotson was tirelessly working on Fairlie. I still wasn’t sure of his condition, but in the midst of battle it’s important to stay focused on the mission. As a crew we were continuing security of the area and calling in radio updates. The next time I looked up I could see that mood on the ground was different, and just by looking at the face of Sanders I knew that Nathan Fairlie was gone. He was 21-years-old.
In the minutes, which felt like hours, that it took for the Blackhawk helicopters to get there, we had set up a landing zone. As it made its decent to the ground soldiers picked up the stretcher with our fallen brother. As it touched down they quickly loaded him into the open doors and the helicopter literally flew off in the sunset as the sun dropped behind the vast desert landscape.
Unfortunately for the rest of us that were still there and the rest of B Troop, our day was just beginning. And we wouldn’t get back to the DMC for a number of hours, but that is a story for a different time. While our fight was not over, Fairlie’s was. Most of B Troop was in Iraq for another 11 months. I wish I could say that Farilie was the only trooper that we lost but, I can’t.
On May 16, 2008, the 1st Cavalry Division held a memorial ceremony dedicated to the soldiers who didn’t make it home by adding their name to the memorial wall. More than 200 names were added that day. I had the honor to meet Fairlie’s parents briefly that day and could see how he became the great person he was. People always thank me for my service, which I appreciate, but the real heros of this country are the ones who didn’t come home.
For me, and probably others who have served in combat, everyday is Memorial Day. I am very fortunate to live the life that I do. I get to see my wife every day. My brother and his family live a half mile away. My Mom lives in Columbus. It’s a quick five minute drive to the house I grew up in where my Dad still lives, and I can stop downtown and see my oldest friend if I need a beer. And still, I bet there isn’t 15 minutes that go by that I don’t think about that day.
While enjoying this well-deserved extra day off this weekend, please just take a couple seconds and remember the reason that we are off. It’s because of men and women just like Fairlie.
For hundreds of years now, brave Americans have given the ultimate sacrifice for something bigger — our freedom.