A soldier’s memories are forever

Thursday, November 11, 2021
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It has been six years since I was medically retired from the United States Army.

I have been thanked for my service many times. It is an appreciated comment, but I don’t ever ask for it. Often, veterans are uncomfortable being thanked.

I didn’t serve for personal glory or gain any social status. In the wake of 9/11, I simply wanted to serve my country. In my 13 years of service, I deployed four different times to combat zones. My job was officially called an Armored Reconnaissance Specialist but was simply known as Cavalry Scout or “Cav Scout.” Cav Scout is a combat arms job and took me to Iraq and Afghanistan’s “front lines.”

With this type of job, I have been asked many times, such as, “What was it like?” or “How many people did you kill?” These questions are complicated because I don’t know how to answer them. The first question has a lot of possible answers, and the second question I’ve never answered.

For this Veterans Day, I will tell a story to try and answer the first question. It pops into my head occasionally, and to be honest, I have trouble remembering some of the details. The story is just my account and isn’t representative of all veterans. Everyone will have different experiences depending on the branch they served in, peacetime, or even in a combat zone but had more of a support role and didn’t see much. In my opinion, every veteran’s time is equally important, no matter how, where, or what branch that veteran served.

This event takes me back to 2009 in the Diyala Provence, Iraq. I was a staff sergeant in B Troop of 6th Squadron of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, serving as a Bradley commander in an M3A3 Cavalry Fighting Vehicle. This lightly armored vehicle with the Bradley commander has a gunner and driver to operate it. It also has space in the back for a few soldiers known as “dismounts.” Our mission was to protect and recon the route between our main Forward Operation Base (FOB) called Normandy, and a Combat Outpost (COP) called K-Wall. The days at the COP were long, with little time to try and sleep.

And if you had an opportunity to try and sleep, it was hard because sleeping in 100-degree heat is nearly impossible no matter how tired you are.

The day I am talking about wasn’t particularly hot and was overcast with slight relief from the sun. It was a late winter or early spring day. The heat wasn’t nearly as bad as the summer months but would still get very uncomfortable, especially with all our gear.

We were patrolling the section of the route for which we were responsible. We would be out there from 8 to 12 hours, and it was essential not to be complacent. So we would find a spot and sit for a while and use the fantastic optics of the Bradley to scan and prevent insurgents from placing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or trying to ambush us, or the Iraqi Army troops we were training and working alongside.

We would then drive and patrol the route without setting any pattern for the enemy to figure out. In my time in Iraq, I saw a fair amount of combat, but a lot of the action was Iraqis fighting each other.

Whether it was Sunni versus Shia Muslims or Kurds versus Arabs, some groups were not happy with the other. As American soldiers, it was hard to tell who was who, and it made me very skeptical of everyone, but we had a duty to take of those who needed help.

On this day, we decided to set up a hasty observation post (OP) and overwatch a small bridge on a canal that had been the target of insurgents’ IEDs who were trying to destroy the bridge and keep us from being able to move back and forth. Without this bridge, our job would have been much harder.

While watching, I heard AK-47 gunfire in the distance, which was common and did not raise our level of concern. I called and asked the other Bradley’s if they had heard or seen where it was coming. Nobody had seen anything, so we just kept conducting the mission.

About 20 minutes later, a small pickup with local citizens sitting in the box drove in front of our Bradley and stopped. This got our attention. A couple of the men in the pickup jumped out and started making hand gestures asking them to come closer to us. They were looking for help, but they also knew not to just run up to us.

I looked as close as I could, and it didn’t look like the men had any weapons. One of the men was yelling, “doctor, doctor!” It was a familiar situation with many locals believing we could get them medical help on demand, which was impossible. With civilians, we would try and coordinate with the Iraqi military or police to get them help.

I jumped down from the Bradley and got on the ground to try and assess the situation. A couple of other soldiers got out also to help keep the area secure. I had called over the radio that I may need the medic, and another Bradley was on the way to help.

We carefully walked to the pickup, and I realized what was wrong. I did not have an interpreter with us to translate. It was tough to communicate with the men, but I didn’t need them to explain what happened. The gunfire we had heard earlier had found a target. Laying in the back was an Iraqi man, probably in his early 30s, with multiple bullet wounds from his legs up to his chest.

The men were yelling and in very broken English, asking for help. I was talking to my crew, trying to figure out what we were going to do. My gunner was still on the Bradley, sending reports on the radio. He popped up and asked if we needed the medic.

I saw a body in the truck and there was a lot of blood. His skin had turned gray. I yelled back, “No, he’s dead!”

At that moment, a young Iraqi, who had been trying to explain what had happened, yelled at the top of his lungs, “NO DEAD, NO DEAD!” He was looking directly at me with a face that had so much pain and agony.

That look has burned into my memory for 12 years now. I don’t know if this kid was his son or some other family member. Whoever he was, I realized that this moment changed his life forever. A team of Iraqi police had shown up with a man who could speak a little English. The young man directed his anguish at the police. The Iraqi police understood the situation and could get the body and rest of the men out of the area, presumably to the local hospital.

At the time, that event didn’t have much of an impact on me. As time went on, I never forgot the face of the young man. We all lose somebody in our lives eventually. I have been around it in the military but also my civilian life. I have never seen a face with that much sadness and distress.

I think of these memories all of the time, but I have told stories like these very few times. It is usually just to the people who know me and know that I am not telling them for some attention. It is just a part of my life now.

Veterans Day is special because it makes me think of all the great men I served with and the great times we had together. There are a few memories between those great times that aren’t so great, but that is part of the job we all signed up to do.

A couple of weeks later, we were doing the same kind of mission on the same type of day. I got a call on the radio that one of the other Bradleys in the platoon was receiving small arms fire and had fired back at the insurgents. We made our way over to help if needed, but it had calmed down in the minutes it took us to get there.

A couple of soldiers in the platoon were securing an area on the ground where they had fatally wounded the person shooting at them. He was lying face down with an AK-47 rifle next to him.

Someone kicked the dead insurgent’s rifle was away, and then we rolled him onto his back. At that moment, I recognized the face looking back up. It was no longer full of pain and agony. It was lifeless.

War is hell.