The U.S. has just celebrated Memorial Day. And notwithstanding that the United States has continuously been in combat for almost 15 years now, including but hardly limited to two major wars, the original idea of the holiday is steadily being lost. It’s less and less a time to remember and honor the fallen, more and more that day when we celebrate the coming of the warm season and all that entails – vacations, backyard barbecues, and permission to wear white until Labor Day.
And I get it. As somebody who went overseas four times as a photojournalist and saw people getting blown up and shot, I do get it. Beginning with the Korean War, presidents have done an about face from FDR: Instead of doing everything possible to involve the nation in the war effort, they’ve done everything possible to shield the public—trying to minimize the impact on the civilian population and thus the possibility of dissent.
Further, thankfully technology and tactics have tremendously reduced casualties. Fewer people are required in combat to accomplish the same ends and those people are vastly better protected. The butcher’s bill has been declining.
But not to zero. We who went and came back remember. And some of you do, too.
First trip over, in Fallujah, Iraq, I got a taste of my own mortality. On later visits I would be mortared, machine-gunned – and sniped at like crazy. For years afterwards, anything that remotely sounded like sniper fire made my skin crawl. (People obsessively popping my bubble wrap after my move; believe it or not.) Snipers love targeting photojournalists (potential international publicity), and when you’re standing still taking video, you’re just begging for it.
Then there were the ubiquitous IEDs, one of which I nearly stepped on because it was underneath filthy green water. I captured my repeated dances with death on video and some can be seen on YouTube and have been shown on national TV. But war is isn’t just hell; it’s nuts. And so both of my injuries, resulting in eight surgeries and counting as I now fight to keep from being permanently maimed, were war-related – but no bullet or piece of shrapnel ever touched me.
Likewise, my best enlisted buddy, Specialist Four Robert Killion, survived 12 months in Ramadi with nary a scratch but then accidentally poked out an eyeball in the heat of battle on his next tour in Afghanistan. He loves that I made him, well, semi-famous, by being there when he took out several bad guys with his M240B machine gun and then made him a History Channel Hero when I taped a sniper bullet striking the wall just inches below him. Still, can’t help but wonder if he’d trade that fame to get his eyeball back. Says 3-D movies drive him nutty.
And Killion still has nightmares about the men he had to kill. “They were trying to kill you and your men,” I’ve reasoned with him. “More than that,” I joked, “They were trying to kill me!” In his waking hours, he gets it. But that’s what war does; it takes a nation’s young men and turns them into killers.
Both were based at Camp Ramadi during the Battle of Ramadi. Al Qaeda in Iraq owned the real estate and weren’t selling it cheaply. I judged at the time it would be (or not be) the turning point of the war. That’s why I went there and then and when asked what neighborhood I wanted responded “The redder the better.” I thought no other civilians had the guts and ability to go in for any appreciable time – and come out. I was a veteran paratrooper with special ops training. As it happens, two men had gone previously and been sniped for their efforts. (Both survived: one shot twice in the legs while his rescuer from the 101st was shot more seriously, the other was hit in the side but was probably saved by (Ahem!) excess adipose tissue that slowed the round.)
Patriquin was the architect of the “Sunni Uprising” in Ramadi that may have done more to win the war (in the short run) than the much-better known “surge.” McClung was my public affairs “handler.” So while I only talked with Patriquin a few times (and took a picture of his bumper-sticker covered desk that literally became world famous), I got to know McClung pretty well. On one of my trips I arrived at night, got lost, and ended up sleeping in a warehouse of cots the size of an Olympic stadium. She found me in the morning, as worried about me as if I had somehow ended up in the wrong war.
Six weeks after my second trip to Ramadi and the last time I saw McClung, at around midnight I received an email from somebody claiming to be a Patriquin cousin. I was told he had just been reported killed after an IED ripped apart his Humvee. I felt awful for McClung and emailed her. That Marine lady answered emails within 10 minutes 24 hours a day. Don’t know how she did it. But this night she did not. So I called her. That always worked, too. Not that night.
Then it hit me. Yes, she had been with Patriquin. An enlisted man died with them. To the Marines it was their highest-ranked female casualty of the war. To me, it was a buddy. I later covered her funeral at Arlington Cemetery near my house; having been a civilian then it was the only time I raised my arm to salute her.
That night, though, I cried. As I later wrote to her parents, whom I met when they came all the way from Washington State to Virginia to visit me, “Dammit, I’ve earned the right. Going back to when I won my Silver Wings and through those four trips, I’ve earned the right to cry.” Killion put it in a funnier way when I picked him up from Walter Reed Army Hospital where he was recovering and took him to a bar blocks from my house where earlier I was a guest at a reunion with part of Seal Team Three. “I like pink,” said Killion. “And if I want to wear pink, I’m going to wear pink!”
THE SURPRISE SEALS
Seen the movie “American Sniper?” Said sniper Petty Officer First Class Chris Kyle was a member of Task Force Bruiser, the SEALs at the bar. I had slept through the briefing the night before my first firefight (I slept through my first mortar attack, too…) and had no idea that Task Force Currahee, comprising mostly the 101st Airborne Division, had Navy SEALs attached to it. They would become the most decorated SEAL team since Vietnam. (Sadly Director Clint Eastwood did them a great disservice in pushing them down to elevate Kyle, as I have discussed elsewhere for this publication.)
Imagine my surprise the next day when suddenly I found myself surrounded by guys wearing different uniforms and bristling with equipment and weaponry. Journalist pay dirt! More pay dirt seconds later when firing broke out.
“I jumped out from my protective cranny (leaving an Iraqi soldier cowering behind) and began snapping photos. Sure, line of fire and all that. But it was my job. So it was for all of us, regardless of whether some of us thought the war was unwise or poorly managed: These still were our jobs. And these bad guys were the baddest – much preferring to kill civilians more than soldiers.
I looked back to see a SEAL aiming his MK48 machine gun right at me. Unsettling! Then I realized that of course the SEAL was covering me as I took pictures. Bad guy steps out to peg me; bad guy goes down. My own personal guardian angel! You could sense something special about this guy. The SEALs sensed it, too. Thus I ended up taking lots of pictures of him, including one that’s appeared in books and magazines worldwide. I had no idea the importance they would one day have.
And thus ensued my first firefight, including SEAL Petty Officer Second Class Marc Alan Lee. I believe I took the only photo of him in combat. A few months later an enemy sniper round struck the weapon of his fellow SEAL Petty Officer Second Class Ryan Job. Pieces flew into Job’s eyes and brain, forever blinding him. During the rescue effort Lee opened his mouth to shout a command. An enemy round entered it – and closed it forever. Later his mother Debbie Lee would also visit me. We went to Megan McClung’s grave in Arlington Cemetery together. (I also met with Patriquin’s dad; meeting the parents of the fallen I had written about was always a happy occasion and one of the perks of the job.)
When I arrived that second time in Ramadi I wanted to interview the SEALs. Initially they took an immediate dislike to me because they saw me as just another sniper victim to be dragged to safety while the sniper, following Standard Operation Procedure, took shots at the rescuers. As we were running up some stairs, one passed me and slammed me hard against the wall. I got the message. But after that first fight they “approved” me; something I didn’t even know they could or did do until one told me just recently. Then my articles on them started appearing. They liked them.
Nonetheless, I was told it was bad timing. While I had been angrily stuck in Kuwait because of some SNAFU, another SEAL had been killed. Michael (Mikey) Monsoor was in an overlook with two other SEALs and some Iraqis when a hand grenade came flying in. The grenade bounced off his chest and rolled. No time to grab it and toss it back. And the only person in position to save himself was Monsoor: The others were all prone. But instead of diving away from the grenade and letting the others be ripped to shreds he dove onto it. He was their guardian angel. And this occurred on St. Michael’s Day, Mikey’s namesake and the patron saint of warriors. He had earlier already earned the Silver Star for dragging a severely wounded teammate to safety with one arm, fending off the enemy with the MK48 with his free hand.
For this act, he—or rather his utterly devastated parents—later received the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. (A destroyer due for commissioning next year is also named after him.) Later at the White House ceremony I stood next to a SEAL who was blind. Yes, it was Ryan Job. Unlike in the movie, he did not die shortly after the injury but rather three years later from (botched) reconstructive surgery. (It was afterwards that we repaired to that bar. Met them in Iraq; reunited with them a five-minute walk from my house. Bizarre.) I never talked to any of these warriors. But oh yes, each man’s death diminished me. Like few civilians can imagine. I wrote an essay several years ago on the devastation of losing a fellow with whom you were at war and especially in combat. You forever carry with you both a sense of deep sorrow and yet of deep pride. You’ll forgive me for saying that I no longer enjoy movies about fictional superheroes.
Meanwhile, after learning of Mikey’s death, I hoped and prayed I had some decent photos of him. You’re ahead of me here, aren’t you? He was the SEAL “aiming at me.” Half of my photos, including by far my best, were of Michael Monsoor. In my videos of the SEALs there’s only one name uttered and it’s uttered repeatedly. “Mikey!” Yes, added to the St. Michael’s Day stuff and it gives me goosebumps, too.
THE “GLORY” OF WAR
Fast forward to last year, when I was with a nationally-known conservative priest at a conference in France. While we enjoyed a magnificent ocean view, he asked me if I didn’t believe that war was glorious. He knew where I had been. What I’d seen. I was stunned. Did anybody still believe that? Gee, hadn’t he at least seen the Normandy invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan? “No,” I said. “War is just you trying to kill the other guys while they try to kill you. What’s glorious about that?” He responded, “But in the grander scheme of things….” Then we were interrupted.
Some people will never get it. And we who do understand why. So crack out the white wardrobe and get those weenies roasting! If that’s what Memorial Day means to you, fine. But to us, it will always mean something else.
No, it doesn’t mean death. Or pain. Well, okay, it does mean those, too. But mostly… mostly I think it means love.