Military Service, War and Death

In case you have been isolated from all communications, you have probably heard about the helicopter crash in Afghanistan that took 38 lives on 06 August 2011 (ISAF press release).  There were 8 Afghan nationals onboard, while the remainder were US special operations forces, mostly from the US Navy SEALs.  This was one of the largest single day losses for the US military and the largest single day loss of special operations forces.  More SOF operators were killed last Saturday than were killed during Operation Redwing (see my blog post on Marcus Luttrell's book Lone Survivor).  This is a painful event.  So far, it has not directly affected me.  I am a huge fan of the SOF community, but I only know a few that have worked in it.  I did not know these warriors personally.  Still, it is becoming indirectly painful, as I am seeing what happens to friends and comrades when 20-30 people they knew suddenly die.  I won't even begin to speculate what this event or the continuing press coverage is doing to the families of the deceased. I only hope what I am writing does not add to their misery.

At times like this, I reflect on my choice to serve, and the choices made by others who have made the ultimate sacrifice.  I still have no regrets.  I joined the military precisely because I felt called to serve my country in war.  Others are called to serve in other, less violent and more constructive ways, but I have always heard the siren call of Mars (Ares), Valkyries, and the Morrigan.  I don't think anyone joins seeking violent death (I didn't).  Most would probably choose to die at a ridiculous old age due to sexual exertion (or killed by a jealous lover).  Yet, few join without some understanding that those who go to war due so at some risk to themselves.

The politicians that want us to keep fighting and those that want us to quit fighting will find ways to use this event to support their views.  Boeing will try to explain why these ancient Chinooks are safe, while their competitors will argue for new airframes.  Others will say that the helos will be safe once some expensive piece of technology is added to the aircraft.  The Air Assault guys and helicopter pilots will argue that the birds and their associated tactics are the only way to fight this war.  Others will demand ground assaults, or an even faster withdrawal.

Ignore them all.  Here is what matters.  Thirty eight individuals got on that helicopter to do their job.  They chose to serve their countries in a time of death and danger, rather than settle for a safe place with their families.  Their reasons for joining, for staying, for getting on the helo that night, were no doubt somewhat different for each.  Unless they shared their thoughts with family and friends, we will never know their reasons.  They served faithfully until the day they fell in battle.  Remember them.  Honor their memories.  Help their families.  Support those who would follow in their footsteps.  If you have it in you, step forward and serve your nation for a time.


Memorial Day 2011

Most of you out there back in the world are probably still thinking of Memorial Day as a 3 day weekend with barbecues and fun. A small percentage of you know what it really means, because you have lost family, friends, lovers or comrades who lost their lives while placing themselves "Between their loved home and the war's desolation". Few know that pain today, when viewed by either absolute numbers or as a percentage of the population. For the most part, I suppose that is all to the good, but it is one more factor that is causing the military and the general population to drift apart. This photo isn't from the front lines, but more from the rear echelon (as in REMF). Still, I think it stands as a vivid reminder of what Memorial Day means. Four flags fly at half mast this week, including our own. We lost eight USAF personnel from our command on one bad day. In honor of them, this year's Memorial Day poem will be "High Flight", by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:

"High Flight"

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.


Usama Bin Laden Is Dead!

... and the first question that popped into my head, will it hurt any less on the tenth anniversary, knowing UBL was turned into shark shit? I hope so. I hope those who lost someone on that day or in the wars that followed feel something other than the hole where they once family or friends.

A little over three years ago, in response to an picture on Wired's Danger Room titled "Don't you f'ing forget", I wrote about what I was doing on 9/11/01 for the seventh anniversary. Today, I will write about what I was doing on the ninth anniversary. After years of wondering if I would ever be mobilized, I received orders putting me on active duty with the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan. I spent September making final preparations for my 400 days away from home. On the ninth anniversary, I had a reasonably happy day, watching my son and his team (Go Marlins!) play t-ball, knowing I would miss the last several weeks of the season. I tried to learn some Dari (with an iPhone app) and some COIN (from the infamous field manual). I was in the middle of reading Ghost Wars by Steve Coll (the fifth book on Afghanistan I had read since receiving my orders). I worked on our will with my wife. I transitioned what I could to my coworkers. I spent what extra time I could with my kids and my wife and my friends. It was not a bad time, but it was hectic and it went by too fast.

Even though I had nothing to do with the operation against UBL, even though I realize that his death probably means nothing, strategically or tactically, to winning this Overseas Contingency Operation (our new name for "the war"), I find it hard to express in words how proud I am to be serving in the military at this time and how proud I am to be an officer in the United States Navy (can I get a hoo-yah?). Perhaps a quote from another to reflect on my feelings at this time:

"I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: 'I served in the United States Navy.'"

President John F. Kennedy, 1 August 1963, in Bancroft Hall at the U. S. Naval Academy.

[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, January 1 to November 22, 1963 (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1964), 620]

To the operators and analysts and support staff that made the raid into Pakistan possible, I salute you (and envy you a bit). You serve in silence in a world rarely seen by the citizens of your country, but on 01 May 2011, you became rock stars. I have full confidence that one day, you will sail home with a broomstick tied to the yardarm. A clean sweep.

To our enemies still at large, rough men, willing to do violence on our behalf, are coming for you. May you die filled with the terror you sought to inflict on others.

I will observe the tenth anniversary of September 11th attacks from Afghanistan. Perhaps I will be able to answer my question then.