So fades a summer cloud away;
So sinks the gale when storms are o'er;
So gently shuts the eye of day;
So dies a wave along the shore.
- Anna Letitia Barbauld - Death of the Virtuous
The day before yesterday a roiling thunderclap shook my office. As I walked outside to get a fix on the situation I watched an ugly black cloud stack up like a black adder on the distant horizon. It was an ugly column, like some giant fingernail was ripping a ragged line in the hazy sky and revealing a ribbon of twilight. As the black smoke rose ever higher it started to dissipate and I walked back inside.
A few minutes later one of the runners came in from the TOC to pass along bitter news, one soldier had been killed and four others were wounded by a VBIED. I sprinted back outside and climbed up onto the roof hoping to trace the ashen column to its base, desperately needing to connect with the tragedy that was slowly unfolding. But by time I was up on the roof the ebon column had melted into the low haze that blanketed Baghdad in a long grey shawl. I stood up there for several minutes scanning the horizon before clambering down.
Later that day the frenzied initial reports coalesced into a picture of the event and the soldier who had been killed was identified as Corporal Glenn Watkins. The best way to describe CPL Watkins is by retelling a little story about the man. I was one of the first troops in my unit to arrive here in Iraq. The unit that we were replacing had spent a year in Southern Baghdad, and by time we arrived they were utterly spent. During those early days I made it a point to talk to as many soldiers as I could to get a feel for the AO (Area of Operations). I figured any institutional knowledge they would be willing to pass along would save my troops a lot of agony in the long run. The troops were more then happy to oblige – they were willing to do just about anything to guarantee a quick ticket back home. In conversation after conversation I listened to a few vital tips liberally salted with stories of the adventures they planned to embark on when they got home.
It was only weeks later that I found out that not everyone was desperate to get home - one Corporal had volunteered to stay another year in Iraq. That Corporal was Glenn Watkins. After hearing so many of his comrades talk about their respective homes in incessant detail I was shocked by this piece of news, and made a mental note to ask him about it if I ever bumped into him.
Two weeks ago I finally had the chance to ask him why he decided to spend another year in Iraq. He replied by flashing a quick smirk and then saying in a conspiratorial voice “Sir - someone’s got to teach these guys the ropes”. Corporal Watkins didn’t have to stay in Iraq, he had already served with honor and distinction. But stay he did, taking the time to teach our troops the hard lessons of survival so they wouldn’t have to pay for those lessons in blood. He will never again enjoy the freedoms he secured for others, but I know that his reward isn't here on this sad little ball of dirt.