Our mission is long in the past, but I thought I would post a link to an L.A. Time Story on LTC Pat Frey, who I frequently referenced in this blog (as LTC Tomahawk).
Our mission is long in the past, but I thought I would post a link to an L.A. Time Story on LTC Pat Frey, who I frequently referenced in this blog (as LTC Tomahawk).
It has been a very, very long time since I have had the opportunity to write in this online journal. Truth be told I have had the opportunity - I just lacked the ability. Although I wanted to bring some kind of closure to this journal it has always been - and will always remain - a war journal. And when you aren't immersed in the blowtorch reality of combat it can be a little difficult to write about the emotions those situations give birth to. Then early last month I was asked to put together a speech for the 82nd Annual Sacramento Host Breakfast, a gathering of California's Business and Community leaders. My tasking was straightforward, put together a short speech that would provide a glimmer of insight into the military before their recognition of California's Servicemen and Servicewomen. I am including the text of my speech below because it serves as an appropriate last posting.
Mr. Brown, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentleman, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here today.
I didn’t grow up planning to join the Army. My father immigrated to the United States so that his children would have the education he was denied in Indonesia. Being the oldest of eight children, my goal was to be the first in my family to graduate college and set the example for my siblings. I studied two years at Cal State Los Angeles and then I decided that to get the full college experience I needed to attend a University with soaring architecture and ivy lined courtyards. I was so fixated on what I thought college was supposed to be like that I chose to give up my grants and scholarships and transfer out of State to the University of Colorado at Boulder. I was so excited at being accepted that I completely overlooked the trifling details… you know little things like tuition and housing. Needless to say I learned my first and most enduring economic lesson, always plan ahead. Within 3 months I was working double shifts as a gas station attendant to pay for tuition. Another 2 months later I was disenrolled from the University and kicked out of dorms for not paying my tuition in full. I remember the timeline pretty accurately, because the next day I celebrated my 21st birthday by moving into my supervisor’s basement. As I sat there trying to figure out how I could get back into school I heard a commercial on the radio mentioning the GI Bill. And that was how I found my way into the Army.
My first few days as a soldier were bewildering, but I had a distinct advantage over the other privates. You see the first few weeks of basic training consist of grinding tasks meant to strip away the accumulated ego and self importance that build up on a person like old layers of paint. And this is where I had a big advantage, because being kicked out of school, living in a basement and serving as a gas station attendant had long since ground away any sense of entitlement I may have felt.
But what the Army broke down they rebuilt, reshaping us into a stronger and truer form of our prior self. Our drill instructors taught us that it was pointless to avoid misery; you had to accept it, let it pass through you and let it strengthen you. My drill instructors would say over and over “Life is tough privates, you need to be tougher”.
In my first duty assignment I learned why our drill instructors focused so intently on hardening us. I needed that strength when we secured mass graves in Bosnia. I needed it when we faced refugee camps so crippled with famine that the fluid flow of the human body was reduced to hard, angular lines. And I needed that strength when we in countries where the only rules were the brutal laws of physics and ballistics. Exposure to these harsh realities could have broken our spirit, but there were joys to counterbalance the pain. Sometimes we would find it in the sing song lyrics of children chirping in high pitch squeals we couldn’t decipher. Other times we found our solace in the serenity our presence brought to areas where civilization had been stripped to its animal core. But mostly we found it in each other, and in the simple knowledge that our actions proved that life could triumph over death, if only for a moment.
No where was that more true then in our deployment to Iraq. Serving side by side with the soldiers of the 1st Battalion 184th Infantry was the honor of my life. Words alone cannot adequately express the commitment, bravery, and self sacrifice these soldiers exhibited each and every day. Qualities personified by my Company Commander in Iraq, CPT Michael MacKinnon. Mike was a West Point Graduate with a smile as broad as the skies of his home in Montana. He was a natural born leader whose tactical skill, diplomatic prowess and raw charisma had turned around Haifa Street, one of the worst neighborhoods in Northern Baghdad. Now on his second tour to Iraq, Mike led our company into the area around Arab Jabour, one of the toughest areas in the Sunni Triangle. With Mike in command we knew that everything was going to turn out alright. He was more then just my commander though; he was my mentor, my tutor, my confidant…. and my friend. In those long and dreadful hours after all the planning and rehearsals were complete, but before the mission was underway, we were always too keyed up to sleep. So instead we would just talk. Mike would tell me about his beloved wife Beth and his two children Madison and Noah. And I would tell Mike about my lovely bride Angie, and joke about what I should name my children when we got around to having them. Mike was pretty consistent in his suggestions, Mike, Michael, and if it was a girl Mika. I wish I could have personally introduced Mike to you. But unfortunately that can’t happen, at least in this lifetime.
Because on October 27, 2005 Mike’s vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb and he was killed. In the face of such a stunning loss it is natural for your soul to grow weary, and for your mind to scream for what has been so violently ripped away. It would have been the easiest of things to let my heart turn as cold as death and pump my veins with venom. But Mike left me with parting gift, the realization that leadership is about being able to see beyond yourself and your own needs. So Mike’s legacy did not end there on that dusty ribbon of asphalt. Instead I took command of Alpha Company and spent the ensuing weeks and months leading my soldiers through those fire bright days. We started to adapt, leaving our armored HMMWVs behind and trudging through floodplains that were ancient when Abraham walked the earth. We paid visits to locals far removed from the road network and built on the foundation of trust Mike had crafted with the local tribes. By time we left the land of the two rivers we had slashed insurgent activity and laid the groundwork for local self government. Within a year of our departure the tribes we partnered with had formed the Hor Joeb Awakening Council, created their own police force, and forced Ansar Al Suna out of the region. What Mike started the council had finished.
I am proud of what my soldier’s accomplished in that small corner of Southern Baghdad, but when I think back to those sun bleached days my strongest memory was our first patrol after Mike’s death. As we pulled into the sandy village of Hor Joeb the local children rushed out of their school, surrounded the HMMWVs and asked "Where is Capt. Mike?". When they learned what happened they cried and wailed in that dusty street. It’s been more then two years now and sometimes I almost cry myself.
Not just for Mike and the other soldiers we lost, but for the sense that somehow I could have done more for them when they were here. Today we have the rare opportunity to put those thoughts into action by honoring a soldier, a marine, a sailor, a coast guardsman, and an airman that each exemplify devotion to duty. They are a credit to their branch of the service and they collectively represent the best of California. So it is with great pride that I would like to turn the stage over to Fritz Brown who will introduce some of California’s finest servicemen and women.
That was the end of my speech, and it is appropriate a place as any to end this blog. But before I sign off I'd like to invite those of you who would like to do something tangible to support the wounded OIF and OEF Veterans to follow this link. Goodbye, good luck, God bless.
After 18 months away the 1-184 IN returned to the sunny shores of California last Monday. It has only been a week since A Co touched down, but when I look back at my days in Baghdad they seem somehow vaugely unfamiliar. It is almost as if I were watching the actions of an unfamiliar other move through my memories. As the memories reconsolidate I will be posting again to finish filling in all the gaps in our deployment... but for now I am just enjoying the free air.
Every goodbye is the birth of a memory
What was to be our last day at the FOB started with pregnant drops of rain sizzling through the predawn darkness. They fell in a tumbling cascade, slowly gathering strength until the air was thick with water. The first few drops of rain splattered into the dust like micro meteorites, sending tiny puffs of dust into the air from their sudden impact. For the first few minutes the air was filled with a strange elemental alchemy – the elements of water, earth, and air all defending their respective domains. Eventually the rain turned into a torrent, and the fallow dust yielded, transforming into tarry pools of mud. Just like a year ago.
The mud is the same, the high walls still grope for the sky, even the wind tastes the same as when we arrived. But I am not earth, nor stone, nor air. I am creature of blood and bone… and I have changed. I am leaving this FOB a different man then the one who arrived at these chill gates those many months ago. I’ve sipped from the poison chalice of loss. Felt my veins run with chill blood and my face streak with hot tears. And I’ve watched as the reaper’s scythe whistled through the desert air. Mortal things cannot brush shoulders with eternity without bearing the psychic scars of their meeting. And so I am changed... both inside and out.
I have aged and weathered under the sun’s fierce glare, my face creased with worn lines as faulted as the sun splintered fields. They remind me of the fearsome toll every one of us paid. I don’t mourn their arrival, they are the outward manifestation of those ethereal scars the crease my soul. It seems somehow fitting and proper that I be left with a physical reminder of what was lost… and what was gained.
Do not mistake my words. I am not broken, nor am I damaged. The story of our mission is not a tragedy, despite our losses. The deepest etchings on my soul, the ones that will remain in both this life and the next, were the incandescent examples of valor, courage, and brotherhood I witnessed each and every day. The men who served at my side were bound to me, and I to them, with tidal forces that have no equivalent in the sterile formality of the living world. Back home the concept of "self" is a rigid construct, a domain mapped with the formality of a land agreement. But here on the bleeding edge we became more something greater than our individual parts. We became a family.
Our time in Iraq is drawing to a close. Our bags are packed. The sun is about to set on our 18 month deployment. And now that we aren’t in daily contact I’ve found my feelings centered on the fierce and solemn pride at having served alongside so many bright souls.
Death comes to all. But great achievements build a monument which shall endure until the sun grows cold.
New Year’s Eve is a time of both reflection and renewal, a time where a giddy sense of opportunity and hope seep into even the most hardened heart. But there was no joy in Killer Company this New Years Eve… because on New Years Eve we lost a cherished brother. CPL Marcelino “Ronnie” Corniel was a warrior prince. He cut his teeth in the United States Marine Corps, then after a short return to the civilian world he joined the ‘Hard Guard” as he affectionately called it. Shortly after his enlistment he was once again on point for his country.
The last few weeks have grown increasingly cold – or at least it feels that way to our desert acclimated bodies. But today was different… today the winter sun flared down on our battered hearts and brought some small measure of comfort to our grieving ranks. Under this warm and welcome sky the Battalion gathered for the memorial service. The ceremony took place on a barren patch of concrete… one that our Soldiers have become far too familiar with. To an outsider this desolate slab would hardly merit a second glance. But to us it is a sanctum, a place around which grim soldiers gather to form a living cathedral.
CPL Marcelino Ronald Corniel, or “Ronnie”
to his friends and family, was killed in a mortar attack on his observation
post on 31 December ending is life at the young age of 23. CPL Corniel was a son to xxxxx, older brother
to three sisters, and engaged to marry his fiancé xxx. He called La Puente, California his home. CPL Corniel’s strong desire to
serve is country drove him to enlist, first in the Marine Corps, and then in
the Inactive Ready Reserve. He joined
The next speaker was CPT A, the Commander of Cyclone Company, and he offered the following words.
He could make people laugh with his
stories. Marine stories are always
humorous to Army guys. He would say that Army Special Forces were just
glorified Marines. One story stands out
to SPC Truck. CPL Corniel’s fiance
was watching the news about Iraq and asked him why the doctors were mad at the soldiers… CPL Corniel explained
to her – not surgeons… insurgents. Just
ask SPC Truck for details. He could just
make people laugh.
I have worked with 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1-184 IN since August. They lost the first soldier in the Battalion and it seems like they are closing the same way. My hat is off to you guys. I will fight with you at my side anytime, anywhere. Guys like SGT Henna, SPC German, and SSG Kin… the guys who were hurt with CPL Corniel, the Department of the Navy squad. All of Green, as we called you! All of you are part of the Cyclone family.
Cyclones – Tear it up! Hard Guard!
SPC G had the privilege of serving side by side with CPL Corniel, and they were bound together by friendship and their shared memories of the Marine Corps. He remembered his friend with these words.
Our Chaplain, MAJ B, was the last to speak. His meditation was a salve to our grieving hearts, and reminded us all that the best tribute to CPL Corniel would be to follow his brilliant example. His tribute follows…
“A few days and we all go home. If we can just make it the net few we will be on our way.” That was our cry as we prepared to demobilize. CPL Ronald Corniel was not given those few days. He just had the moment, but he lived those moments fully. Today’s tribute to CPL Ronald Corniel is most fitting and proper. He served the United States Marines, the Army, and hs country well and we pay our deep respect to him and offer our sympathes to his family.
He had been a Marine and loved it. He did his time. But he wanted to give more. He chose to join the Army during a time of war. He chose the Guard to serve with brothers and friends he knew. He wanted to do something significant; he wanted to make a difference. He had already done his part, he served his country honorably, he could have stayed home but he came back. This is the type of man we remember.
Our Lord has given us a legacy of hope for
the future when he said, “ I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me though he were dead,
yet shall live. And he that lives and
believes in me shall never die.” Let us
not fear death, but face it; let us not cower before the future but walk boldly
Then too, let us go on to take advantage of today’s responsibilities and opportunities. Let us live each day well – one at a time. Sine we have only one life to live, we should give it our best. Each of us needs a cause and a purpose that is bigger then ourselves to which we can dedicate our lives. CPL Corniel did not live in the past, he did not rest on a past career, he looked forward to what he could offer in the present because he did not let fear of the future hold him back. He came to a dangerous place and live gallantly. He wanted to live vibrantly, now. Let us not regret the past or fear the future so we can get on with the business of living in the present. May we learn to seize the opportunities at hand and thank God for every day we are given. Let us begin with the first day we have, today!
CPL Corniel was as close to perfect as this world allows. He will be missed. Rest in Peace brother.