June 11, 2012

Name: Alex Horton
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: VAntagePoint and Army of Dude

The face never comes into view in my dreams, but I know it’s him. The twisted mouth is agape, molded in an eternal gasp of shock. The lower half of his body is gone, and there’s a black hole where his guts should have been. When Chevy was blown from the Stryker hatch, he took flight for an incalculable measure of time before landing on the slat armor of his vehicle. His uniform was blown off, which never happens in the movies. But he was whole, as complete and pure as the day he was born, I’m told. I never got the chance to see for myself before he disappeared into a body bag. The continuing ambush prevented that.

Memorial Day comes early and often for the men in my infantry battalion. During the unit’s second tour in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, we lost 21 men from three companies and attachments. We lost 17 in the span of four months during the Battle of Baquba.

Each year, from March to June, the calendar bleeds with somber anniversaries. The ghosts of a six-man squad huddle around May 6. They lived together, trained together, and when they were attacked during a late-night mission, they died together. We mourned them weeks before Memorial Day arrived, when folks back home looked forward to a long weekend and cookouts.

Remembrance can be an exhaustive process, spread throughout the spring and marked with individual days of reflection. The closer the calendar gets to Chevy’s day, the more introspective and isolated I become. Pictures and memories from the platoon flood Facebook, and phone calls crisscross the country. For the first few anniversaries, we traded memories and wept together. But now that it’s been five years, the topic of death and war has partly eroded. These days we talk about having kids, or being old and out of place at college. We have new stories to tell. We’ve partitioned off the painful ones.

Just like in combat, where heavy gear pulverizes knees and grinds down backs, carrying the burden of recollection cannot be sustained. At some point you have to let go. Memories of the fallen are knotted with the consequences of chance: Why did I live when a father died? Why was I given the chance over someone else? The search for answers cripples many veterans who have forgotten what the dead have truly given us: A chance to fulfill a life they willingly gave up.

Memorial Day for those of us who have fought is not simply a broad recognition of the sacrifices rendered by the dead, but an understanding of the exchange of life for life. Chevy’s gift to us wasn’t so much his skill or his grit. It was an endowment of time, at first measured in the seconds after his Stryker was toppled to its side. He absorbed the beginning of an ambush that could have killed more men. Those seconds he bought us stretched into minutes and hours, transformed into days, weeks. They built years. His gift was a nanosecond exerted under thousands of pounds of pressure that crippled steel and broke his body, but the effects stretch into the infinite. For the men of our platoon, every new life created, every new career, graduation, marriage, divorce, every discovery flows along the detonation cord tied to the stack of anti-tank mines that exploded under Cpl. Brian L. Chevalier, Chevy to us.

Sometimes I have another dream, but this one is of my former team leader, Jesse, who was killed while I was on leave. I’m riding in a school bus on the highway in what looks like California. Everyone has their backs to me, and I look out the window to see another bus going the other way. Jesse’s hanging out the window, and he’s waving, with his big goofy grin. I don’t know what the wave means, though I know he’s happy to see me. But I can’t go with him. Not where he’s going. Not yet, anyway.

This post originally appeared in the At War section of The New York Times. Alex Horton, a longtime contributor to The Sandbox, is a public affairs specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he writes for the department’s blog, VAntage Point. He served for 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq with the Second Infantry Division. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexHortonVA


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