Today is supposed to be a sad day, one full of reflection. As I think of Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country I want to feel sad like everyone else. I want to be thankful.
I’m trying to celebrate the life and mourn the death of a friend, Sergeant Ryan Connolly. We were the only Californians in our squad in boot camp and we hit it off immediately. After graduating, we exchanged email addresses and parted ways. He was sent to Germany while I wound up in Georgia. We rarely spoke unless sharing a major life event, such as his marriage or the birth of his daughter. The last time I tried to get in touch, I saw an obituary instead. It was June of 2008 and Ryan was scheduled to return to Germany but volunteered to be the medic on a few more patrols to guide his replacement. Ryan’s vehicle hit a landmine on his next patrol.
I try to make Memorial Day about Ryan. I try to think of how he volunteered for a final patrol to guide those who needed him. It was selfless and heroic. I try to think of that. But then I open Facebook and things change.
I saw dozens of posts for Memorial Day this morning, many honoring soldiers I had served with in Baghdad. Then I saw pictures of five familiar faces and old memories came rushing back. Five men—five husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons—died on that horrific August day, our unit’s deadliest day in Iraq. Those five men fell into a textbook ambush. It started when a sniper shot Will. A four-man infantry team tracked the gunman to a home nearby and charged in, looking for vengeance. Someone on the team stepped on a pressure plate and triggered a bomb. All four were inside when the house collapsed. They never came back out.
There wasn’t a dry eye at the Tactical Operations Center that night; it was the worst day of the deployment for all of us. Ten years later, it still hurts to think about. I try to just mourn, to let my heart hurt for a time, and think of today the way normal people do. But then my brain takes over and the sadness disappears. It’s replaced by anger. The uncomfortable truth is that the ambush should have been avoided. Their commander had already been warned about the house. Those five men should be spending today with loved ones like the rest of us are.
I know this because I worked in that unit’s S2, or intelligence office. Before the ambush we found recent satellite imagery showing that an abandoned house had new cement. As “house bombs” were starting to become common, it caught our attention. Analysts in the S2 studied the imagery and agreed it was suspicious—there was zero reason for the abandoned house to have new cement. One of the analysts sent the imagery to the captain in charge of that area and warned him.
There are several reasons why the captain may have shrugged the warning off. Maybe it was because of a mistrust of “POGs (person other than grunt) by some combat troops (grunts), or because of previous false alarms, or maybe the warning was ignored due to a general hate some soldiers had of all things “academic-y,” as analyses were sometimes called. Only the captain knows why they weren’t warned. Ultimately, the reason doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that the five men were never given any reason to stay away from the house rigged with explosives.
The five soldiers were just as selfless as the other heroes we remember today. Their sacrifices are just as tragic. For their families and communities, the why isn’t important, just the what. But all I can focus on is the children who forever lost their fathers not due to shielding a comrade, saving a civilian, or charging a machine gun nest, but because of someone else’s stubbornness.
I tell myself this was an isolated incident. I like to pretend that the commonplace tendencies, flaws, and mistakes which caused this disaster don’t exist elsewhere. We all like to pretend that.
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 soldier stationed there who never returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. As often happens, most of the soldiers received posthumous promotions and awards for exceptional service.
Those in charge pretend they’re faultless and that the five men’s deaths were an inevitable part of war. The rest of us play along.