In gratitude

This is a memorial bracelet. Most of my friends from the Army wear one. I do not: none of my friends have been killed in action. I could not be luckier.

I got out of the Army about 6 months ago. I made some of the best friends I will ever have during my 4 years of service. On Memorial Day, as we remember our fallen and those they’ve left behind, I am particularly aware of my good fortune not to be one of those left behind. This is written in gratitude to each of the Soldiers I served with.

Nothing binds people together like shared hardship, and military service features shared hardship like almost nothing else. For me, that started with Basic Training. The training itself was not particularly challenging (except maybe push-ups, which are still the bane of my existence). But for almost all of the 200+ Soldiers in my Company it was a radically new experience to live and work in such close proximity to so many people from so many different backgrounds. Our Drill Sergeants taught us the basics of being Soldiers and inspired me to push past limitations I thought I could never overcome. My fellow recruits taught me how to be part of a team. Each of them has my unending thanks.

From Basic Training I went on to Officer Candidate School. This was the most competitive environment I’ve ever been in. Everything we did was graded, and our overall grade determined not only whether we would graduate as new Second Lieutenants but also what branch of the Army we would be assigned to. For virtually every Army Officer, their branch defines their career. Go Infantry and you know you have a lot of cold, hungry nights ahead of you along with the prospect of leading combat patrols in places like Afghanistan. Go Adjutant General and you know you’ve got a primarily office job managing human resources. In other words, the stakes could hardly have been higher.

The Candidates in class were among the fittest, smartest, most driven people I’ve ever encountered. All of them had a clear idea of the branch they wanted and were determined to place high enough in the class to get it. Yet despite the intensity of our competition, everyone worked together. We had study groups together, analyzed our field problems together, motivated each other during PT, and talked openly about where we stood in the rankings and how to maximize the number of good outcomes for all of us. I will never forget that.

My next step was the Infantry Basic Officer Leader’s Course (IBOLC). Our lowest points during IBOLC were about the worst we’d ever experienced, and hopefully still are for most of us. On top of basic infantry tactics, we learned firsthand about frostbite, near-starvation, exhaustion, and intense friendship (a friend who’s held you at 2am so you can fight off the cold of 20 mph winds on a 15 degree night is a friend for life). Their candid commentary on peer evaluations was the most illuminating instruction I’ve ever received. And their example in finding joy in even the most monotonous hours taught me not to take myself quite so seriously. I would do anything for them.

I spent the last 2 and a half years of my career in a Stryker Infantry Battalion based out of Fort Lewis, WA. Most of that time was as a Platoon Leader and Company Executive Officer.

I adored my platoon. I had to compete hard to earn the privilege of working with them and was convinced that they were the finest Stryker Infantry Platoon in the Army. My belief was confirmed by watching them excel in everything they did. Getting to know each of the Misfits, and being a part of their journey as Soldiers and young men, was the most meaningful experience of my life. I would have gone anywhere with them. The idea of them deploying without me is the most painful part of leaving the Army behind. I still worry that I could have done more to prepare them for combat. And, even as an agnostic, I still thank God none of them were seriously injured on my watch. Losing any of them, particularly because of a decision I made, would have changed me irrevocably.

As a Company XO I didn’t work with Soldiers directly as frequently or with the same intensity. Instead of being right alongside them, I was more often making sure that they got hot food on a cold night, plenty of water during remote jungle training, and shelter for long field exercises. It was a chance for me to give back in a way, but I couldn’t have done it without a lot of them chipping in on their own. I am still amazed and humbled by the Soldiers and NCOs who went out of their way to help make my job easier and to help make our small piece of the Army as good as it could be.

Through all of my time at Fort Lewis, I had the best group of peers and mentors I could have hoped for. My commanders were patient and encouraging, pushing me to improve while always looking out for me. The senior NCOs were enthusiastic in sharing their wealth of knowledge and helping me work through problems that would have overwhelmed me without their help. My fellow junior officers had my back on a daily basis by helping me learn from their experiences, solving problems cooperatively, never letting me get complacent, and freely offering their friendship. My greatest good fortune was that I had the incarnation of Captain America as my partner NCO both at the Platoon and Company levels. His friendship, leadership, selflessness, dedication, and savvy are without equal.

All of this is to say that losing any one of my Army friends to war would have been a terrible wound for me. As I reflect on the men and women we’ve lost, my soul aches for them and for the people who loved them. Summer has finally arrived (at least here in the Pacific Northwest), and it’s great weather for a barbecue and a good time with friends. I only ask that you think of those who have lost friends, and, if you know someone who has, consider giving them an opportunity to share their stories. Recalling our fallen, our shared experiences, and the many things we owe them is the greatest memorial we can offer to their sacrifice.