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.