I sat up on my cot, rubbed my eyes and saw Rob standing there.
“You going to the memorial ceremony or what?”
I looked at Rob and replied, “Yeah, just give me a couple of minutes. I’ll meet you outside the tent in five.”
“That works,” Rob replied.
It was 1800, I had been laying down for about an hour, trying to push my way through a migraine. Earlier in the day I asked Rob to come get me to attend a memorial ceremony for Sergeant Shelton, who three days ago put the barrel of his M4 in his mouth and blew his brains out. This was the first memorial for soldier killed in our brigade since the last one, which was only four days ago. The memorial for Sergeant Shelton however, would be the first for a suicide since we arrived in Baghdad.
I threw my uniform on, laced my size 14 boots onto my feet, grabbed my pistol, and walked outside the front of the tent.
“Shall we,” Rob said, as I closed the tent flaps behind me. “We should walk fast so we’re not late for this.”
“I think we’ll be ok,” I answered. This doesn’t start for another 20 minutes or so. And I don’t think there will be much of a crowd for this one.”
“Probably not. I grabbed dinner before I got you up. I knew you had another migraine, so I got you a to-go plate. It’s in the fridge over at the headquarters waiting for you.”
“I appreciate that.”
“This is your third migraine this month, you should probably head over to the Doc and get it checked out.”
“I should, but I won’t. I’d rather just wait until after the deployment.”
Rob was a good friend, probably my best friend in the unit, even though we had known each other for about a year now. And as good friends do, he was looking out for me. We increased our pace to the small theater that was set up on our forward operating base. It served as a theater, a basketball court, and on Sundays as a place of worship. There were bleachers on three sides of the court area, with a small stage on the fourth side. We held all of our memorials for fallen soldiers here, and last week Robin Williams and Kid Rock performed and signed autographs as a part of a USO tour.
“So did you know Sergeant Shelton?” Rob asked.
“Not really,” I answered. I have seen him around the FOB, exchanged greetings once or twice, but that’s all.”
“Then why did you insist on coming to this?”
We arrived at the theater, and walked about halfway up the bleachers to take our seats. I was right, the crowd was sparse. But I had time to think about an answer as we walked to our seats.
“I think we owe it to him. I don’t know why he did what he did, but he was still one of us, a soldier in war. We should pay our respects, it’s the right thing to do.”
“I disagree.” Rob said pointedly. “I don’t think we owe him anything. Everyone else, every other ceremony we’ve sat through, those soldiers went out and did their job. Some were shot, some got blown up, but they never had the choice to live or die, Shelton did. He made a choice.”
“Then why are you here.”
“Come on James, I’m here for you. Look around, some of his friends are here, but I don’t see any other officers but us. I didn’t want you to be alone.”
“I appreciate it Rob. You know I’m lucky and thankful to have you as a friend. It’s friendships that get me through this deployment, and to a larger extent, this war. But a part of me thinks Shelton is a casualty, just like everyone else we’ve seen in this place.”
Before I could go on, the Brigade Chaplain walked on stage to let us all know the ceremony would begin in two minutes.
“He’s not like everyone else James. Getting shot or blown up on patrol is one thing. Sitting down in the shitter and killing yourself is another. It’s apples and oranges, or even apples and kangaroos, because there is nothing similar about the two.”
“I disagree, we have no idea why he did this. If it was the stress, or some kind of PTSD, then I think it’s oranges and tangerines. Not exactly the same, but close enough.”
Before Rob could answer, the Chaplain walked back to the microphone and said an opening prayer. Unlike other ceremonies there was no official party. On stage were the chaplain, and two of what I presumed to be Shelton’s friends. At ceremonies for soldiers killed by the enemy, or even accidents, there was a litany of speakers, to include the commander, first sergeant, and on occasion generals from higher headquarters. There is something heroic in the air when someone gets blown apart from an IED, but nobody really cares when death is self-inflicted.
As the chaplain began speaking, Rob looked over at me and asked, “why do they always do this in the john? Seems like every suicide story I hear, the act takes place in the port-a-john. I can’t explain it.”
I had given this some thought over the past couple days and answered, “When you think about it, the port-a-john is the only time and place where we get to be alone on this deployment. We’re always around people, from the time I wake up until I go to bed, we are part of a crowd. Every meal I’ve had for the past six months has been with one, two, or even eight other people. Someone is standing next to me while I shower, while I shave, and someone is two feet away from me as a Skype my family at home. Our only moments alone is when we sit on the toilet.”
“So you think loneliness drove him to it?”
“Yeah, I do. It’s like the book Frankenstein. Everyone loves to debate who the monster is. Is it Dr. Frankenstein, or Frankenstein’s creation? But when you actually take the time to read the book, you realize that loneliness is the monster of the story. The creation is thoughtful, well spoken, but his lack of companionship drove him to his evil acts. It’s the same thing here. When you finally get a moment to yourself, to think, to reflect and contemplate on what we have done here, the good, the bad, and the ugly, it can drive you insane.”
“I don’t know,” Rob said. I value time to myself. Time to think, time to reflect. Having a wife and three kids makes me appreciate that time even more.”
I shook my head in disagreement. “When we came back from the last deployment, I was still single. Before we all left town to spend time with families, or in my case to take vacation, we had that one week of reintegration. Do all our paperwork, turn in our gear and so forth. Do you remember that?”
“Well on the first day of the reintegration, we finish at about ten in the morning. I drive back to my house, walk inside and say out loud, while no one is listening, “what the fuck am I supposed to do all day.” I felt this way all week until I finally flew back to New York and see my family.”
“What did you do all day?”
“I read, I watched TV, I ate out at some nice restaurants, and drank. I went out to some bars and clubs almost every night. I didn’t do all that great trying to pick up some girls, but just talking to other humans was a high all by itself. I reached a point where I looked forward to work, I looked forward to the next deployment where I would be around my friends.”
“Not everyone feels the same you know. Some people are alone in crowds. You remember Curt Cobain?”
“Sure, lead singer of Nirvana. One of the top all time bands.”
“And he killed himself. In his prime, on top of the world.”
The Chaplain finished speaking, and introduced one of Shelton’s friends. Again, the difference between other ceremonies we attended and this were stark. A few weeks ago Rob and I both sat in Sergeant Mario Washington’s memorial. That event began with the National Anthem. Memorials for victims of suicide had no accompanying soundtrack. But that’s the key, for the most part soldiers who killed themselves were for the most part not considered victims.
“I looked at Rob and said, “I hope he found peace.”
“I don’t think he did,” Rob replied.
“You don’t think he’s in a better place?”
“I don’t. You know how I feel and what I believe. Suicide is a one way ticket to damnation.”
“I think that’s a bit much.”
“You think Shelton believed that?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps he believed in hell. Maybe he thought that whatever pain eternal damnation offers was an improvement. If there is a just god, I don’t think he or she would punish a soul for that.”
“This is where you and I differ James. Shelton had a choice, and of his own free will he killed himself. He let down others in his squad, platoon, and so forth. Tomorrow morning when they wake up, there is one less person to pull security on patrol. In ending his own life, he made it harder on others to live theirs. He gets what he deserves in the afterlife.”
Shelton’s first friend approached the podium and spoke. He talked about what a great kid Shelton was, and how hard of a worker Shelton was. Each line seemed more superficial than the last. It quickly became clear that Shelton had colleagues and platoon mates, but lacked any true friends. This was equally clear to the other fifteen soldiers in the bleachers. Shelton was surrounded by men and women at every turn. At no point in his tour was he ever more than a few feet from another soldier, yet no one seemed to know him.
When the first soldier was through with his speech, Rob looked at me and asked, “Do you even believe in the idea of eternal damnation?”
I answered, “No, not at all. I don’t buy the concept of heaven and hell.”
“I’ll never buy into the concept that my actions and how I treat other people should be based on the idea of a reward or punishment. I know, it is an old and tired argument to make, but that’s just how I see the world. This one and the next.”
“You’re saying there is a next world?”
“I have no idea. I know as much about an afterlife as everyone else living on this planet. No more, and no less. Everything you know, or claim to know is faith.”
“It is faith. And my faith is strong. I go back to the argument of purpose. If there is nothing, or nobody judging our actions, then we have no purpose here. We’re just a species that eats, sleeps, fucks, and shits. Nothing more and nothing less. I simply can’t buy into that philosophy. Good and evil exists, you make a choice, and live eternally with the consequences.”
“Good and evil don’t exist, people do.”
Before I could continue the argument, a second soldier approached the podium and began to speak. He spoke for a couple minutes, followed again by the chaplain. Here was another difference. At Mario’s ceremony, his company performed the roll call followed by the 21-gun salute. The roll call began with the company first sergeant calling out the names of three soldiers still in the unit. The soldier stood up and loudly thundered “Here First Sergeant.” Then came Mario’s name followed by a few seconds of silence. The seven man honor guard then fired their three volleys for the 21-gun salute, immediately followed by a lone bugler playing Taps. Shelton’s ceremony had none of this.
“Only two friends,” I said aloud.
“Yeah,” Rob said. “I don’t think he had too many.
“I think that was part of his pain. I told you before it’s friendships that get me through this war. From my first deployment a couple years back, right up until now, I don’t see how I do it without them.”
“You don’t talk much about your friends from previous units. Why is that?”
“I don’t keep in touch with them”
“So they keep you sane and help you emotionally get through a deployment, and now you don’t talk to them?”
“Army friendships tend to work like that. Take my time at basic training, for eight weeks I forged some close friendships. A group of us ate, shit, and slept together, and the moment we walked in the graduation parade was the last moment I heard from them. Life starts getting in the way. The way we bounce from one place to another, you can’t cling to old friendships; you have to make new ones.”
Rob sighed. He looked straight ahead as the chaplain approached the podium and said, “That’s how you wind up alone.”
The chaplain said a final prayer and the theme to Glory played over the speakers. Those in attendance simply got up and walked to their tents, to their office, or over to the chow hall for a late dinner.
I looked at Rob and asked, “Should we give a final salute?”
“I don’t think we do this time.”
All previous ceremonies concluded with nearly every soldier in attendance, from generals to privates approaching a memorial with the dead soldier’s picture, and offering a final salute. Some generals, colonels, and sergeant majors would drop a coin next to the framed picture.
Rob and I climbed off the bleachers. Rob looked at me and said, “I’m headed over to the headquarters, going to give the wife and kids a call. I haven’t talked to them in a couple days. I’m not headed outside the wire tomorrow. Let’s have lunch.”
I nodded my head, and replied, “Absolutely, tomorrow is Tuesday, I never miss Taco Tuesday.”