THE RED IN THE CENTER OF THE PATCH |
April 10, 2012
This is the post that I’ve been dreading, but I knew it would come. For the first time since WWII, Ohio’s 37th (then a division, now a Brigade Combat Team that includes many soldiers from Michigan) has lost lives in combat. Several days ago, out in Maimana, an insurgent wearing a suicide vest approached a group of Afghan Police and their mentors and detonated his vest. The indiscriminate violence of that act took many lives. Among the dead were two Americans; SFC Hannon and SFC Rieck. A third, CPT Rozanski, died of his wounds within hours. Five other soldiers were wounded, most of them severely. Two are still fighting for their lives.
All three of our honored dead leave families behind. Children, wives, parents and siblings. Each of our wounded has a life. Each has a story. Every single one of them was born into loving arms and was, in that moment, the most loved being in the world. Each was born into hopes and dreams, and none of those hopes and dreams involved being blown up by a madman with explosives strapped to his body. Each one is or was a volunteer; they raised their hands. Some had to compete to get on this particular mission. Each took those hopes and dreams and the love of many hearts with him every day he left the wire.
These men did not willingly give their lives, but willingly risked them. They placed their health and their lives as a wager on the altar of freedom, not as lambs to slaughter but as the sheepdogs who defend the lambs from the wolves. Theirs was no unwitting nor willing sacrifice. Not given, but offered with a challenge; come and take this if you can.
The insurgent commander who sent the madman to do this deed did not strap himself with explosives but sent instead a minion who was not likely in possession of a strong mind. Instead of standing in open combat, he stole those wagered lives in a way that protected himself at the expense of another -- or so he thinks. We will kill him for it, for this will not stand without repayment. Like a pit bull who has finally bitten someone, there is no reconciliation. For him there is no more opportunity to lay down his arms and rejoin the society he seeks to seize control of. No. He has earned his fate. He will not likely die in open combat, but terrified by a sudden rush of sound and fury in the night. There is no saving him.
As the old Irish curse says, “May he die screaming.”
The news stories about the event are disturbing. Some stories reported that they were acting like a bunch of battlefield tourists, strolling in the park and taking pictures. Some depicted the soldiers as having opened fire indiscriminately in the aftermath of the attack, killing children in the process. One such story appeared in Stars and Stripes of all places, which apparently cut and pasted directly from al Jazeera. None of these stories are true. Not one American fired a shot following the blast. They were performing a mission, not wandering around like a bunch of carefree war tourists.
Newspapers in the US and the UK published photos of the grim aftermath, violating the dignity of the dead and dying. For that, I am eternally angry. The editors of any publication that did so had best never meet me and be identified as being responsible for the publication of such war porn. It would not go well for them. Just because they could didn’t mean that they should.
The team that was hit was an SFAT (Security Force Assistance Team) like the one I am a part of. It’s actually part of the group of small teams that I belong to. This team worked with the Provincial headquarters, mentoring the Provincial Police Chief and his staff. The Afghan Public Affairs Officer, or “PAO” as they are known in military parlance, was doing a mission that included a visit to a radio station and then distributing radios to college students. Some local residents were interviewed as well. The PAO from the 1-148 Infantry, the unit supporting the SFAT in the area, was there to work with the Afghan PAO. The Afghan Police element was detailed to provide security for the operation.
Some PAOs sit the war out almost exclusively within the walls of a compound, but CPT Rozanski didn’t. Not this day. He went out to support the Afghans and partner with them.
Some reports say that the locals had warned them about “wandering around the town.” They did not.
These men were doing a mission. They were supporting the Afghan Police in their mission, and that means going with your Afghans and doing what they do. That means that sometimes insurgents will try to kill you. They want to frighten the Coalition into staying on the FOB. These men knew that lives can be changed or ended instantly here. They were out there, doing their jobs, and the worst happened.
In Afghanistan, almost anything can happen on any given day; it just usually doesn’t. Sometimes, however, it does. This is an example.
Before the smoke cleared, men with cameras -- perhaps covering the events for local media, perhaps documenting the strike for the insurgents -- descended upon the dead, dying, and wounded and began snapping pictures. One of the wounded recalls wanting to shoot the vultures, but being unable to. The resulting pictures of dead and wounded Americans are all over the internet. Many newspapers published them and earned my undying emnity. If you haven’t looked at the pictures, do yourself a favor and don’t.
There is no dignity at the moment of death. There is no dignity in agony. The dignity comes from the purpose in their hearts, the reason that they subjected themselves to the risk of such incredibly lethal, destructive violence. Those pictures do not show that dignity. Without the context of the honor of their hearts, which cannot be captured in a photograph, the only thing captured is the inhuman lack of dignity in that moment. A photograph may appear to be coldly objective, but it lacks this greatest of contexts and is therefore highly subjective. To view these men in that vacuum is to fail to grasp the reality of that captured moment, and to view only the absence of dignity; which is to objectify the dead.
Objectifying human beings, especially their deaths, is not good for the human soul. It is the natural state of the sociopath, and bringing even a bit of that into your own soul depletes you. Now, some will not be able to help themselves, but I’m telling you that it never feels good after having seen the result of extreme violence in that moment where the context of the man is missing, where the viewing of a human being as an object is unavoidable. Those men do not deserve to be gazed at in their agony. They do not deserve to be gawked at where they were tossed by the horrific violence of that last moment. When the dignity of their spirit cannot be conveyed, when they become horrific objects to the human eye. I can’t stop you, but I can ask; please don’t. For you, for them, please.
When men have had their lives taken, there are honors to be rendered by those who have the sure and certain knowledge that these men did possess that dignity. It doesn’t make the horror go away, it doesn’t make it all better. It is grim, but it is demonstrating the utmost of respect. It is the external echo of our internal loss and our true belief in the dignity of the sacrifice made, the purpose in their souls. It is grief, respectfully shown. It is the time when strong men and women shed tears of loss.
The first is the “ramp ceremony.” The streets of Marmal were lined with members from every nation represented on this base, and there are quite a few. Led by the Germans, every one of our partner nations lined up to show respect, to symbolically defend the remains of now defenseless men on their final journey. To salute as they passed. Any ill to be spoken of any of these nations was, in that moment, moot. They were our brothers and sisters, and it breaks my heart with its power.
Our partners created a wall here at Marmal where plaques are affixed, each bearing the name and date of every soldier lost in the RC North from every nationality since the beginning of the war. At a ceremony yesterday three men had their names enshrined, plaques unveiled to show their names in a way that keeps their names alive here, so that we can remember and so that those who follow may say their names if only in their own minds as they read them. “Lest we forget.”
The German hospital at Marmal, for the second time, strove heroically to save the lives of 37th Brigade soldiers. None have died after reaching the care of the Germans. I cannot adequately express my thanks for their professionalism and caring. They have been magnificent.
I would also like to laud Soldiers’ Angels for the loving care and respect they give our wounded as soon as they arrive in Germany. They provide an informal connection, reaching back to us and forward to the families with non-medical communication. They never violate ethics. They will actually hold the hands of our wounded while the medical staff is working hard to save lives. Soldiers’ Angels care for the heart, freeing the busy doctors and nurses to care for the body in the sure knowledge that no soldier will go unloved. And nobody does it better. They are wonderful, awesome people who do things as volunteers that I could not keep my sanity through. They spend time with people who are having the worst, scariest days of their lives and bring a smile, a blanket, news from home, a message from their brothers, or a warm hand to hold.
This is likely not the last of the casualties for our brigade. This is just the beginning of the fighting season. Not all days are grim. Most aren’t, in fact. The exposure level varies due to the jobs that people are assigned to do, as it has always been. Some have jobs that take them out, some have jobs that keep them inside the wire. Some have choices and exercise them as their hearts and minds lead them. Some strive to go out and are not permitted due to their assignments. Some are nearly always exposed.
Most are willing to place their wager on that table and dare anyone to try and take it from them. Some will have their wager taken, because that is the nature of war.
On any given day in Afghanistan…
Seven insurgents who were affiliated with the suicide attack in Maimana have been killed and two others arrested in the past 24 hours. The release of that information was cleared through our S-2.