During one of our Battalion’s memorial ceremonies COL Wood quoted a passage that described our last few days with perfect clarity. The line that has echoed in my mind these last few days is this: "Soldiers have fallen, but the line holds steady".
The day we lost our commanders was the longest day of my life. Once we had completed our grim work on scene we lined up the recovery and security vehicles and started the movement back to the FOB. As our convoy approached the FOB 1LT Moth called us over the company net and requested we immediately report to the company CP. As the words rolled over the net I felt naked tendrils of anger swell as if molten fingers of lava were coursing through my body. The message didn’t fan the glowing embers of rage smoldering in my chest, it was a perfectly legitimate request. What infuriated me was the thought that our follow on movement to the CASH to check on CPT Mackinnon, SGT Bard, SPC Sol, and SPC Spartan might somehow be stalled. As we rolled into the gate the patrol leader guided the other vehicles to the refueling point, and my vehicle broke formation and sped towards the CP. I dismounted the HMMWV before it had even rolled to a stop and marched into the command post. I used each footfall as a thumping mantra, focusing on purging the useless fury infecting my thoughts.
As soon as I walked in our CP the anger clicked off and my hot blood congealed into pure ice. Standing in front of me was MAJ Ursa, the Battalion Operations Officer, and the look on his face carried a grave solemnity that seemed to chill the entire room. MAJ Ursa walked over to me, looked me in the eye and said “We lost Mike”. Up until that very second I had assumed CPT Mackinnon would be fine, holding on to the childish notion that the hero in every good story would somehow live happily ever after. I felt hot tears start to burn the corners of my eyes, and struggled to keep them from betraying my anguish. What stopped my tears from falling wasn’t my own resilience, it was the sudden realization that there was still much work to be done.
We had caught several suspected insurgents at the IED site, and we still had wounded soldiers in the CASH and both situations needed to be addressed before there would be time to mourn. In those first few empty minutes duty took the place of will, and eventually my grief was stayed by the gravity of our follow on tasks. Once the detainees were turned over to the detainment facility I took one of the HMMWVs and sped to the CASH to check on our soldiers. As we were walking into the CASH we ran into SPC Sol outside the main entrance smoking a cigarette. We rushed up to greet him and he dutifully pulled up his pant leg to display the ugly crease a sliver of shrapnel had carved in his leg. We joked around for a few minutes and then let him get back to his room to get some well deserved rest.
As we entered the CASH we stopped at the front desk to find out where our troops were located, but the desk was vacant. As I waited for the attendant to arrive I started to look around the waiting room. The entire room was immaculate, the drab uniformity of the walls brightened by cheery Halloween cards and posters. For a second I had to look back at SSG Spite and remind myself I was still in Iraq – the sense of order and cleanliness was utterly bewildering. As the minutes slipped by I walked over to one of the Halloween posters. There splashed in a scarlet, bleeding font were the words “Halloween Party – 1800 at the XXXX pool”. I can’t describe the bitterness that simple line dredged up. There has always been a yawning gulf between the bleeding edge of the battlefield and the relative luxury of the rear areas – but after everything we had witnessed today that chasm seemed especially hateful. In that instant I knew I could no longer wait at this cheery desk, with its carefree invitations and smiling Halloween monsters. This was not my world, my world was a land of real monsters, and dirt, and death. I wanted nothing to do with this rear echelon oasis.
I grabbed SSG Spite and we moved upstairs to find our troops on our own. After a few minutes one of the nurses took pity on the dirty bedraggled soldiers roaming the halls and guided us over to SPC Spartans room. When we walked into his room we found him laying down in one of the hospital beds, looking as bright and hopeful as always. His short term memory was still a little disorganized, and he laughed at his inability to remember how many times soldiers had stopped by to visit. We laughed and carried on for a few minutes and then let SPC Spartan get some rest. As we left we returned to the nursing station to find out other injured soldier, only to find he had already been released back to the FOB.
We jumped back in our HMMWV and made our way back to the rest of the convoy, and once we had linked up we all rolled back to our FOB together. By time I walked back into our CP it was well into morning, but the entire company leadership was still awake waiting for our return. Around the simple mapboard that serves as an makeshift table sat 1SG Nascar, 1LT Mo, 1LT Irish, 1LT Eve, SSG Rock, SSG Moose, and SSG Longboard. As I looked at these men I recognized the same pain burning in my chest was reflected in their eyes – and in that moment we were brothers in grief. I couldn’t have asked for kinder company then this battle worn family, our lives bound together by bonds of both joy and pain. We talked for a few minutes and then I sent everyone off to get some rest. As they filtered out of the CP I walked back to my room and spent the rest of the morning staring at the ceiling, my mind adrift in dark currents. I felt like a feckless boat seeking refuge from a gathering storm, but there was no safe harbor that morning. Eventually the sun leeched into the sky and I walked back into the CP.
By then a message had come down from the BN TOC, both myself and the 1SG would have to report the Fallen Hero’s room for a Battalion meeting. I walked into the latrines to clean up and was startled by the lined faced gazing back from the mirror. After a quick shave I looked a little better, but my reflection still looked as aged and worn as an old grindstone. The morning slid by, as some mornings tend to do, and looking back I can’t seem to remember much of what happened in that span of hours. Eventually lunchtime arrived and I joined the 1SG in the Fallen Heroes room. The entire battalion leadership was there around the assembled tables, and after a few minutes the Brigade Commander, COL Cor arrived. His face looked drawn and fatigued, but there was also a strength there that I had never before seen. He talked to us for a few minutes, and though I don’t remember his exact words they seemed to sing in a way that only true words can. Then he turned towards where me and the 1SG were sitting and officially appointed me the new company commander of A Company. The moment those words rang out the fog that had settled on my thoughts seemed to burn away.
In that instant I lost the right to dwell in darkness… because to do so would only destroy what Mike worked so hard to build. The sense of loss remained, as it ever will, but now I had a duty that eclipsed my own personal welfare. With the subject of A Company resolved the Brigade Commander introduced our new Battalion Commander, LTC K. Our new commander talked to us for a few minutes, and laid out the future course of our battalion. He seemed to grasp the enormity of our task, and his confident words were proof enough to me that we were in good hands. By time his words trailed off I knew that the line would hold steady indeed.