30 January 2010

The Ghosts that Haunt Us

I mentioned a little while ago that at least one brother Red Bull was heading downrange to Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (BCT). In a related item, an Associated Press article from earlier this week does a great job of reviewing the Green Mountain State's contributions to the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The article, bylined by the AP's John Curran, starts off a little tongue-in-cheek, but ends bittersweet. Read the first and last paragraphs, and you'll see what I mean:
Vermont, a bastion of ex-hippies and Ben & Jerry liberals, has another distinction seemingly at odds with its peace-loving, tie-dyed politics: It has suffered more deaths per capita in the Iraq war than any other state.


A 1,500-strong Vermont National Guard contingent is now headed for a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan. At a departure ceremony last month, two mothers of Iraq war dead watched solemnly as 350 troops were sent off to war.

“We get concerned that our mere presence is a bit of a downer for the troops,” said Marion Gray, whose stepson was killed in Iraq. “We’re like the ghost that hovers in the background, and always worry about the soldiers looking at us, knowing that we lost a soldier, if that puts a damper on things.”
The Iowa National Guard company of which I am a proud member has already lost one soldier in Afghanistan. Sgt. 1st Class Scott Carney was an Embedded Training Team (ETT) member in August 2007, when he died in a non-combat-related Humvee rollover in Herat Province. I didn't know him well, but he was a go-to guy, and I like to think that he and his family continue to be role models for us.

His widow Jeni was able to muster the wherewithal to attend one or two unit events after the fact, and her poise and grace and faith were absolutely radiant. It could not have been easy to revisit the armory where her husband once worked every day and every drill. I wanted to personally thank her just for being there, but I felt embarrassed and self-conscious. I felt it wasn't my place to intrude, and told myself that others would do the job for me. I talked myself out of my good impulses.

In short, I was a coward. It won't happen again.

I think about that Vermont stepmother, who was worried that soldiers might take her presence as an unwelcome reminder of the costs and risks of war, and her words haunt me. I developed a habit, a few years back, of pushing myself to personally thank veterans for their service. You don't ask about when and where they served--some vets, after all, don't want to dwell on such details. Others know that you had to be there. But, when you see the "USMC" ball cap or Purple Heart license plate or Vietnam campaign ribbon lapel pin, and you say, casually but sincerely: "Thank you for your service."

While wearing the uniform to a local restaurant or grocery store, I've occasionally been on the receiving end of such thanks. I don't always feel worthy of the praise, but I do feel proud--and humbled--that a fellow citizen has taken the time and effort to cross the distance between us, just to say thanks.

Personally, I try to thank family members, too. If you know what to look for, you can pick them out from a crowd. You'll see people wearing a yellow ribbon, or a pinback button with a soldier's picture on it, or a blue-star flag lapel pin, and you'll know that part of them i downrange, too. As the saying goes, "soldiers train, but entire families deploy."

Want to know what you can do? All you have to say is: "Thank you for your soldier's service. And thank you for your family's service, too." If you can read non-Army uniforms, use "sailor," "marine," or "airman" for Navy, Marine, or Air Force personnel. Not sure of the branch of service? Use the generic term "service member." (One final tip: "Airman" applies to both male and female members of the U.S. Air Force.)

I hope that someone told Marion Gray how much it meant to them that she was there. And I hope you reach out to a soldier, veteran, or family member sometime, just to say thanks.

And thank you for reading this.

(More news on the 86th Infantry BCT moving out here. I can't yet explain the headcount discrepancies; "1,500" vs. "more than 3,000" soldiers, but I'll work on it.)


  1. Say it everytime I see a uniformed person or give the sign for thank you if they are too far off or busy. I hope that you understand that blogging with you is my way of thanking you, too.

    Also, I know you have a great support group at home, but if you send me and address when you get in-country, I'll add you to my milsupport group and send you stuff that you might need. Or if there is someone you serve with who gets no support or mail, put me on him/her and I'll fix that shit pronto. Or you can share what ever I send to you, too.


  2. Sherpa,
    There are many times we wish we had followed up on a impulse like that. It's hard to overcome our thought we'd be rebuffed or something.

    Like John (Coffeypot) said and I've said before, once you get boots on ground, I'd be honored to send you, your unit, whoever some schtuff. I've been told my cookies are pretty darn good. I'll let you guys be the judge, okay?

  3. @Coffeypot, Ky: Y'all are too much, too kind, and much too kind. God love you, and everyone who thinks and acts like you. When the time comes, I'll be sure to pack your kind offers of assistance away in my mental duffel bags, for use when I get further downrange. Until then, however, I'll just keep them here at home, close to my heart.

  4. Where I am, we don't often see many military on the streets.(that is about to change with the Oluympics, I'm thinking..lol) However, whenever I do get the chance, I do 'get over myself' and my fear of intruding and say "Thank you for your service." Seems so little, when considered alongside what you all do.

    As for the families? I have always known and acknowledged that the family also serves. Is a fact. Since I don't see many military families here, I write. I have made it my mission to always honour the families...and to that end I write wherever I can...Ky knows where I can be found.;)

    Thank YOU for your service.

  5. the 3,000 is the total for the whole unit (made up of I think 6 ANG units; I know NH is one of the other units. The 1500 if the total from the 1-86th itself, from Vermont.Hope that helps.
    And thank you for your service.
    Louisa and Hedgie (from NH and supporters of the NH&VT ANG))


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