Today is supposed to be sad, a day full of reflection. I want to be sad today. To be thankful. But I can’t. This Memorial Day, I’m furious.
I’m trying to celebrate the life and mourn the death of a friend, Sergeant Ryan Connolly. Ryan and I went through basic training together and were the only Californians in the squad; we hit it off immediately. Upon graduation, we exchanged email addresses and parted ways. He would be stationed in Europe, while I wound up in Georgia. After our training I rarely thought of him until I learned of his death. It was June of 2008 and Ryan was scheduled to redeploy to Italy but volunteered to be the medic for a few more patrols to guide his replacement. Ryan stepped on a landmine on one of those patrols. He never made it back to Italy.
I try to make Memorial Day about Ryan. I try to think of how he volunteered for a dangerous patrol so he could help the soldiers who would replace him. It was selfless and heroic. I try to think of that. But then I get distracted. I start to think of the soldiers from my unit who never made it back from Iraq. In any war there will be deaths. We were hunting killers and killers were hunting us. Soldiers don’t like to think about it but it’s a reality we all accept.
I looked at facebook this morning and saw dozens of posts for Memorial Day, many of them having names and faces of people I had served with. I felt sad until I saw his picture. Charles had served with us in Iraq and was a route clearing specialist. Seeing Charles’ face took me back to the arguments we had. The news and military portrayed the story of Charles’ death as an act of valor, but those of us closer to the situation remember that his death was completely unnecessary.
We had been using a road in another unit’s area because the nearest road in our region was too dangerous to drive. The road was unused because it was covered in improvised explosive devices. After the commanders had a pissing match, we learned our unit would now use the dangerous road. Charles was in the lead vehicle on the first route clearing patrol down that road, the one we knew was full of traps. He drove over a landmine. Charles came back to the United States in a box.
The military will twist the story, but those close to the situation know the truth: Charles died because he was on the wrong end of somebody else’s argument.
An hour later I saw their picture. Five people had died on that horrific day, the most our unit lost at one time in Iraq. They had fallen into a textbook ambush. When the gunner opened the hatch on his armored vehicle, a sniper shot him. An infantry team of four tracked the sniper to a home nearby and charged into the home, looking for vengeance. Someone on the team tripped a wire and triggered a bomb. All four were inside when the house collapsed.
The ambush was horrific. There wasn’t a dry eye at the Tactical Operations Center that night; it was the worst day of the deployment for everyone in the unit. I still hurt when I think of that day. I try to just mourn, to let my heart hurt for a time, but then my brain takes over. The uncomfortable truth is that the ambush could have been avoided.
In the week before the ambush we had imagery showing that the abandoned old house had new cement. There was zero reason for this house to have any repairs done to it. The commander in charge of that area was warned about the cement being tampered with but ignored the warning and sent a patrol to the house. Five of his soldiers never made it back from that patrol.
Just as with Charles, their deaths were entirely preventable.
Charles and the five soldiers who died in the ambush all had trees planted for them at Fort Stewart, Georgia’s Warrior Walk, where a tree is planted for every Fort Stewart soldier who passed away while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The officers in our unit pretend they’re faultless and that the six soldiers’ deaths were an inevitable part of war. The rest of us play along and try to believe it.
I want to have a normal Memorial Day and wave a giant flag before eating hamburgers and telling stories about Ryan, but the anger won’t let me. I can’t celebrate freedom or mourn death today. All I can do is think about the ignored warnings which robbed us of six fathers, friends, and brothers. Soldiers don’t like to think about it but it’s a reality we all accept.