A Screamin' Eagle on R&R

While I first wrote this several months ago, I wrote it for myself and friends. Some of them suggested sharing it and I think it is as relevant now as it was then so I'm sharing it with my Blog. The article was published in the Fort Campbell Courier on Christmas Eve 2003. Poignantly the U.S. death toll as of today's publication now exceeds 1,000, unlike when this piece was written. -- Lucy

After a business meeting last Fall [2003], I visited the Alexandria, Virginia National Cemetery. Located at the end of a residential street, it is otherwise unremarkable except for being in the company of another half dozen cemeteries nearby. So many graves of men from around the country form straight lines across the rolling acres of the national cemetery. Growing overhead are thick shade trees turning Autumn gold that intermingle with droopy power lines.

Other than names eroding into aged stone markers, we are left to imagine their last moments in service of their country and how they came to rest here for eternity.

The Washington Post’s headlines that same day noted than three more U.S. troops were killed in Iraq bringing the death count, since the 'official' close of war to a number greater than 100 lives.

Waiting for a flight at Washington Reagan Airport, I also read the local Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. This newspaper listed six columns of names of service personnel for whom family and friends wished that they be remembered in thought and prayer -- Captain Castro, Major Durcsak, Airman Panek, Private Garcia, Ensign Bauserman, and Staff Sergeant Millett were among those for whom ‘petitions-of-the-people’ were printed in the "Religion" section.

I switched my seat once on-board for the flight to Nashville so that a husband and wife could sit together. Funny how small movements in our lives can lead to bigger moments.

I was now seated with Ryan, a very tall and lanky young man, twenty-something, who I learned was returning home to Fort Campbell from Iraq on a 15-day R&R. Over the course of that flight we talked nonstop. He was so eager to reunite with his wife Ashley who is his "best friend," four-year-old son, Nick, and his two-year-old daughter, Julie, who does not remember him, but tried to talk to him by telephone earlier that day.

The travel time from near Baghdad to Nashville had taken about 6 days. Through helicopters, trucks, layovers in Cyprus, stand-by flights, and eventually a flight from Frankfurt to Baltimore, Ryan had been traveling for days without benefit of sleep or shower. He assured me that he was a pro at that. Fortunately a VFW volunteer transported Ryan and some other troops from Baltimore International Airport to other area airports for their domestic flights home. Without that service, the cost for Ryan to get to Reagan Airport would have been about $90, possibly prohibitive. I didn’t know that the military didn’t cover the cost of transit during R&R to home destinations, only to ports of entry in the U.S. This didn’t seem right to me. Ryan didn’t complain; I did. [This has reportedly changed since this writing.]

The troops who disembarked the VFW van at Reagan National Airport had long waits for connecting flights; in Ryan’s case it took about 9 hours. I told him that many people like me would have gladly paid for a motel room for them to rest in and to freshen up with showers before arriving home had we known of them and how we could help. He said he couldn’t complain about being bone tired and dirty; he was going to be with his family soon, that’s all that mattered.

Ryan talked proudly about his division, the Screaming Eagles, or the 101st Airborne Division. He related their tie back to the Civil War days in a proud fashion; a story I already knew but was very pleased to hear him tell it anyway.

His father served in the same division in Vietnam and his grandfather served with it in WWII. Back home in Waterford, Michigan his folks were none the wiser that Ryan was stateside. He wanted some quality team with his little family alone before visiting with anyone else.

Being 6'4" Ryan was understandably cramped in his seat. I asked him if anyone had advised troops during these extremely long-hauls home of the merits of taking aspirin, if they’re able to tolerate it, as a preventative for DVTs – deep vein thrombosis, or blood clots. No, he never heard about this, but said he would be sure to remember it now.

Ryan said that he and his comrades came home nervous about fellow countrymen’s reaction to them. There’s a worry, he said, that the troops are hated as the country has polarized during what we now term 'postwar occupation.' A segment he heard on talk radio in the VFW van had upset him. I reassured him that no matter what he heard on talk radio, people, generally, support the troops and can distinguish their feelings about that issue versus the war itself. He listened but didn’t look convinced.

Since leaving home 9 months before, after a prior tour of duty in Afghanistan, his son had grown up sufficiently by the age of four to admonish his little sister to obey the house rules because, as little Nick said,

"Daddy carries a gun and kills bad guys."

This troubled Ryan greatly.

Ryan, a team leader, talked affectionately about ‘his’ men. He also talked about division comrades who are now dead. He and his men talk about how easy it is to be killed in so many different ways over there.

Primarly, Ryan hoped that the military would stop sending unseasoned troops over there; they were doomed, he felt. While Ryan said that he didn’t want to be thought of as a killing machine, or at least not that alone; it’s not a job that he would wish upon anyone else either.

I really hated to say goodbye to this fine young man. Upon landing, as other passengers stood aside while troops nearly leapt from their seats, we watched them go bounding through the airport.

I couldn’t keep up with Ryan’s pace, but in the approaching distance I saw three smaller figures waiting patiently by the security ropes. Within moments Ryan seemed to devour them whole and the little family blended into one complete shape, at least for the moment that I wiped my eyes. I could only imagine this scene multiplied by hundreds or thousands throughout the country.

The next morning the identities of the three troops killed over that weekend were published. They were more of Fort Campbell’s best, and at that time, the senior ranking officer to be killed, Lt. Col. Kim Orlando. The newspaper reporting would have been much more effective if it had headlined that,

"Lt. Col Orlando, Staff Sgt. Bellavia, and Corp. Grilley were killed trying to keep the peace in Iraq’s postwar occupation."

Give them their due, put their names on the news headlines! They matter[ed].

Ryan is presumably now back in Iraq. Back then, I mentally counted down the days of his R&R and estimated the time it would take for him to return. During that same time I watched news reports intensely as helicopters crashed and more soldiers were lost in a myriad of ways.

I can’t help but wonder about Ryan. . .
Was his R&R all that he hoped it would be?
Do Julie and Nick have sharper memories of him to hold onto?
Did Ashley prepare his favorite meals?
Did Waterford welcome him back home?
Was he met with warmth, respect, and generosity by his fellow Americans?

You see, there’s plenty of room for considerable debate about this postwar occupation, the residue of a war that shows no end, in fact. I don’t have the answers. I listen to politicians, journalists, interviews with Iraqis, read Blogs and am left very glad that my own mind and my own hands are not personally in charge of the war.

But what I do know is this: no matter how any of us feels about the military activities that are going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other locations where fellow Americans meet harm’s way, the personal face of this time in history will be etched in some stones somewhere, much like those found in Alexandria's cemetery lawns, for generations to come.

The places in our hearts, mind, and memory are formed by our person-to-person knowledge of service personnel like Ryan, Lt. Col. Orlando, Staff Sgt. Bellavia, and Corp. Grilley. They belong to all of us now. They all matter, regardless of what we call this continuing violence that robs another generation of children like Nick and Julie of a complete family and a nation of peace- of-mind and of peace-at-heart.