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They Were Soldiers… and Young

August 8, 2015

It started when our daughter – born an incomprehensible 20 years after the last U.S. troops left Vietnam – came home from school anxious for us to watch a documentary she had seen in her U.S. history class.  The film, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, had moved her greatly and she had all kinds of questions about the Vietnam War: Had anyone from our family been in the war?  Why were our soldiers there? Were the soldiers really that young?  We watched the documentary online via YouTube and addressed her questions as best we could. Over the course of a few subsequent weekends, she brought home the movies Platoon and Apocalypse Now and continued to ask the occasional question, most of which began with “Why?”.  Being a normal, busy teenager however, her temporary fixation on Vietnam eventually waned as Hamlet, precalculus, volleyball, and Law and Order:SVU laid claim on her limited available attention.  My thoughts, on the other hand, were not so fast to move on:

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Watching the U.S. military machine transform over a matter of a few months the vast sandscape into a massive complex of hangars, tarmacs, roads, tents, and mess halls, all filled to overflowing with people and materiel, was awe-inspiring.  Once the barber shop, convenience store, and other amenities were set up in tents and cargo containers, I became a regular customer.

One day while waiting in line to get my half-hour online at the internet tent, I struck up a conversation with an 18-year-old cue companion.  He was going to send his grandmother an email to thank her for the $100 bill she’d just sent him in the mail.  Grandma was apparently super cool and the youngster already had his eye on the video game he was going to buy with the birthday cash.  He knew his tent-mates were going to be pumped too and he foresaw some epic competitions as they all waited between the sand berms to be told what would happen next.  He’d also heard a rumor that there could be some elite troops waiting for them when they eventually crossed the border; had I heard anything about that?  As I left him to take my turn at the computer terminal, I couldn’t help but think how much he had reminded me of my own school-age son back home.  I hadn’t been around soldiers much in my life to that point and I found myself wondering about boys that young being chosen to fight my country’s battles.

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The 20-something lieutenant had been placed in charge of a Force Protection unit.  When he learned I was from Utah, he started seeking me out, first just to chat and later to seek advice.  He was from a tiny Utah town and this was his first combat tour.  He spoke often to his mom and sister back home often via Skype and to give them a veritable blow-by-blow of everything he experienced. The lieutenant was having a hard time with a 30-something sergeant who kept disrespecting his authority in front of the unit and wondered what he should do.  I shared personal stories and tried to build his confidence in his leadership role.  Privately, I asked some folk to make an active show of respect for the lieutenant’s leadership and rank in front of the sergeant.  Things seemed to get better.

Some time later, the lieutenant sought me out after returning from a mission.  As was all too routine, the convoy had been attacked while returning from a village they had visited.  This occasion was different in that they’d taken fire over the course of a few kilometers vice just at one ambush site, had taken a couple of non-life-threatening casualties, and had returned fire for an extended period.  The lieutenant wanted to share with me that he had gotten his first confirmed kill of an enemy fighter that day.  He had already Skyped with his mom and told her all about it; she was proud of him and was going to tell the rest of the family.  He described the event with a youthful enthusiasm and pride reminiscent of players on my son’s high school basketball team describing last-minute heroics to beat crosstown rivals.  He felt vindicated as a “real soldier.” I later learned from the colonel that the lieutenant had demonstrated true leadership under pressure as he calmly and maturely took charge of the situation, deftly commanding his troops and getting every member of the convoy back to the base alive.

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While getting a tour of the base shortly after my arrival, I was escorted into the wooden shack that housed the two-person Counter Remote Control Improvised Explosive Device (RCIED) Electronic Warfare (CREW) team.  Being computer/electronics geeks, the guys had wired their small space to host four networked terminals on which they could play multiplayer video games.  I learned that they would regularly invite small combat units that briefly paused at the base to utilize the gaming set-up and this day was no exception. Four young Marines from an Embedded Training Team (ETT) were sitting at the terminals enjoying a raucous game of Counter-Strike, calling each other names and loudly bragging about their skills.  I sat there with the CREW guys and the Marines laughing and listening to their trash talk for about a half-hour before some bonehead came into the building and referred to me in some deferential way that seemed to make the Marines feel uncomfortable about the casual manner they had taken with me.  Bummed, but understanding, I left the CREW shack and continued my tour.

A few weeks later, five members of that same ETT were killed in an ambush along with several of the indigenous troops they were accompanying after having accepted an invitation to come into a village and meet with tribal elders.  While I was told some of the fallen had been in the CREW shack during my visit, I had no way to confirm names.  The team’s actions in that battle resulted in several citations for valor.  I cried in my room on the night I heard of the Marines’ deaths.  I found it heartbreaking that those men who died, so much braver than me, were also the kids who had been so embarrassed for having let me share their youthful boasts of girls and games, and who seemed to have their whole lives ahead of them when our paths first crossed.

soldiers

(edited and reposted from September 2012)

From → Ideas

3 Comments
  1. I am struck by the way you simply place these vignettes carefully on the beige felt of the war-room table, no posturing, mostly observation, little in the way of reaction… until the final section.

    I am enjoying your deft, understated writing very much. Sometimes I wonder whether your relative invisibility is a result of choice or command. That is not a complaint, by the way. Mostly I’m left reflective rather than curious.

    • Invisible, but not absent. Would it make sense to you if I said that the answer to your wondering would be affirmation, negation, and a sincere proclamation of ignorance all wrapped into one? If forced (smile), I’d say I come out of ones like this certainly reflective, but probably also somewhat proactively anti-curious myself. I suspect I am selective (or maybe protective) when it comes to setting parameters for my introspection.

      I am once again grateful for your kind, encouraging words, VC.

      • I think selective and protective might well be synonyms in this (writing) context.

        A couple of weeks ago, a colleague shared a quote that I found affirming, negating and indicative of my profound ignorance all rolled into one: All understanding is misunderstanding.
        We have only ourselves, and each other.

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