28 May 2012

Remember the Names; Tell Their Stories

This new Red Bull Rising post originally appeared as a guest opinion in the Iowa City (Iowa) Press-Citizen May 28, 2012:

I joined the Iowa Army National Guard because I wanted to serve God, country and community. What I didn’t realize was that, in addition to paying for my education and giving me a part-time (and sometimes full-time) job, I’d receive a lifetime of “war stories” in return.

In 1993, I slung sandbags in Cedar Rapids. My wedding in 1997 was nearly postponed by a deployment to Bosnia. [The wedding happened, the deployment did not.] In 2000, I monitored levees on the Mississippi River, protecting some of my old high school haunts. In 2003, I ran a movie theater, and radio and TV stations on a beach in Egypt. During the blizzards of 2007, I worked the night shift in the state operations center. In 2009, I helped prepare 1,000 troops for a short-notice mission to support a U.S. presidential inauguration.

When I first raised my right hand to enlist, I couldn’t have predicted any of that. Lots of stories.

In 2010, I prepared to deploy with 3,000 Iowans of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division (2-34th BCT). It was the largest deployment of Iowa National Guard troops since World War II. Paperwork got in the way of my deployment, but I went later as a civilian reporter. That, too, makes for a good story: "Middle-aged Midwestern Boy meets Afghan deployment, boy loses deployment, boy goes to Afghanistan anyway."

Some war stories I tell to entertain others. Some of them I don’t. Sometimes, I change the names, especially on the goofy ones. Sometimes, however, the names are the essential part of the story: 
  • Spc. Donald L. Nichols, 21, of Shell Rock. Killed April 13, 2011, in Laghman Province, when an IED detonated under the vehicle in which he was traveling.
  • Staff Sgt. James A. Justice, 32, of Grimes. Killed April 23, 2011, by small-arms fire in Kapisa Province, during an helicopter-borne mission to secure the position of a downed U.S. attack helicopter. 
  • Sgt. First Class Terryl L. Pasker, 39, of Cedar Rapids. Killed by small-arms fire July 10, 2011, when a rogue Afghan security officer attacked at a makeshift traffic stop in Panjshir Province
Maher was a husband, a father of three and worked an Omaha auto dealership.

Nichols was engaged to be married; his brother, a U.S. Army Reserve soldier then also deployed to Afghanistan, escorted the body home.

Justice—his nickname was “Juice”—was a hardworking NCO who fought to go on the deployment even after the Red Bull had left Iowa in August 2010. He arrived in country in February 2011. He had a wife Amanda, and a daughter named Caydence.

Pasker? After a year in the “safest province in Afghanistan”—U.S. soldiers in Panjshir didn’t drive armored military trucks, out of respect to their local hosts — he was planning to retire, go back to building homes, and start a family with his wife, Erica. His unit was just days away from returning to Iowa when he was killed.

People don’t have to visit a cemetery to celebrate the lives and sacrifices of our citizen-soldiers, nor should they forget the friends and families who bear scars and burdens long after the trumpets play. They do, however, have to remember. And people can’t remember if we don’t talk about the fallen. We have to say the names. We have to tell their stories.

The 2012 feature film “Memorial Day”—available on DVD and Blu-ray May 29—tells the story of a Minnesota boy who confronts his grandfather with a dusty World War II footlocker, filled with souvenirs. Actor James Cromwell’s character tells 13-year-old Kyle: “I didn’t loot. And I didn’t steal. I collected things that would help me remember.”

Me? I collect stories.

Kyle grows up to wear the same 34th Division “Red Bull” patch currently worn by many Minnesota and Iowa National Guard soldiers. Like thousands of other Midwestern veterans and citizen-soldiers, I proudly wore that patch on my shoulder. So did Maher, Nichols, Justice and Pasker.

After I retired, I packed my own footlocker, after my wife asked me to rid the house of my surplus Army baggage. Into a single government-issue box, I put 20 years of uniforms and boots, along with patches, pins, and other paraphernalia.

One day, I’ll tell my kids about what’s inside. I will tell them about the Red Bull. I will tell them about giving back, and putting your life on hold to serve country and community. I’ll tell them about making each day count, and never taking anything for granted.

Especially coming home.

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