There is no such thing as a casualty-free war; and fortunately for the America, there are a select few who accept the most austere conditions in believing our country is worth defending.
As a combat journalist with time with the Marines in both Anbar and Helmand Provinces, I've been fortunate to meet hundreds of these motivated and determined young men and women over the past six years, and I'm honored to record the efforts of Marines and Navy Corpsmen who volunteered to go into harm's way.
Three years ago I was in Afghanistan, flying from Camp Leatherneck up to Kandahar. It was a cargo flight that had been suddenly designated a "Dignified Transfer Flight," which is Pentagon-ese for bringing home the body of one of our young men killed in action.
The plane was virtually empty; two passengers and me, the small Air Force crew, and covered by an American flag, the body of a serviceman killed that morning by an IED in Helmand Province. The military's goal is to bring our dead back home within 48 hours, and this was the first leg of such a journey.
I didn't know him personally, but after 14 embeds, I've met hundreds of young men like him; under 25, proud of his unit, usually a couple of tattoo's, enthusiastic, friendly, will share his last bottle of water with me, and wants me to tell the American public that 'we're doing some good things here."
Usually flights into Kandahar are lively as the troops are listening to their iPods or trying to talk. But not that day; the only sound was that of the plane's engines as most of our group had their heads down and I watched one of the Air Force crew adjust the flag draping the young man.
I couldn't take my eyes off the flag. Unlike 99 percent of the media who cover the war, I'm not a disinterested observer; my son is an active-duty Marine with multiple combat deployments to his credit. I know too many in this age group not to be affected by this young man's sad trip home and I imagined my son or one of his friends coming home the same way. How would I react I wondered (as do many of us parents of deployed sons and daughters) if they came and knocked on my front door?
After we landed, our plane came to a halt in a corner of the airfield, away from the usual bustle of troops, contractors, and cargo pallets, and the rear of the plane opened to reveal a small honor guard of Marines -- Army -- Air Force assembled to ready him for his final flight home. As our small group prepared to walk off the plane through the forward hatch, a Marine Chief Warrant Officer and I lagged behind to pay our respects; the Gunner removing his Kevlar and bowing his head, and me, a non-practicing Roman Catholic, offering a sign of the cross before the Air Force crew gently pushed us to depart.
I wanted to stay and watch the ceremony, but with one of the crew shaking his head, I grabbed my bag and hurried to catch up to our group. Walking to the terminal all I could think about was how fiercely proud I hope his family is of him. Oh young man, you'll be missed.
Many will be missed, and that's what Memorial Day is all about.
Unlike the young man above, I knew HN3 Chris "Doc" Anderson: I met Doc in Ramadi in October 2006. We were out in OP VA and Doc was amazed that someone 'even older than his dad' as he gently put it, would be accompanying him and the Marines on daily patrols. He and I got to be good friends; after the debriefs he'd talk about his dad who ran a commercial real estate business, and while he liked medicine and being a corpsman, maybe he'd go back and work with his dad? Great conversations; he was full of life and enthusiasm.
In December I learned that he'd been killed by IDF; while treating one wounded Marine, another mortar round hit close by, killing Doc who had thrown himself over the Marine in order to protect him.
Then a few weeks later, maybe midnight, my phone rang; Hi, I'm Jim Anderson', the voice said, "Doc's dad. I found your card in my son's personal effects, and was hoping you could tell me about your time with him?
I asked if I could call him back; I needed to think about what I was going to say.
It was a long call. I told him of his son's pride in him, and how he was undecided over a career of medicine or real estate. I told him how he looked after the Marines both while on patrol and back at the PB, as well as how he'd made me his special project. While nothing I could ever say would relieve the pain of his oldest son's death, I tried to reassure Jim that Doc's last weeks were as productive and fulfilling as ever in his life.
That's the spirit of Memorial Day; it's the remembrance of those who didn't come back alive, and a celebration of the esprit-de-corps and how they lived their lives.
God bless the United States and those who stand watch over us tonight.
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